SCENE & HEARD



EAST-WEST JOURNAL
by Geert Lovink

"The Moscow art scene is getting destroyed. Career artists are escaping to the West. You can meet them in Berlin or Amsterdam. Many of the artists who stay here are having to change their occupation since there is no longer any state support and it's practically impossible to find a part-time (and well-enough paid) job and have free time for art. Another problem is that art institutions are in deep crisis. Context is getting very blurred."
Media artist Alexei Shulgin on the current state-of-the-arts in Moscow


I like such situations because I don't believe that art is a middle-class domain. The contemporary art system--galleries, museums, magazines--has always been the only available system for Russian
artists and the only target. Our ideas about underground and left-wing activity in Russia, the country of once-triumphant Marxism-Leninism, are confused. To be an underground artist there means to be an amateur. In a certain sense, all Russian artists--even Ilya Kabakov--are underground artists simply because they are not part of the (Russian) mainstream. Contemporary Russian art is, in fact, something that barely exists at all. Perhaps it is only a reflection in the Western art-system's distorting mirror.

This situation contributes to my satisfaction at being "in-between": in between mainstream and underground, and in between East and West. I live part-time in Budapest. But because it is impossible to make a living there as a Western media artist and theorist, I travel back and forth between Eastern and Western Europe. The Internet helps me navigate this situation. I am trying to involve more artists with the net, but most of them are burdened with conventional middle-class mentalities and a lack of facility in English. There are also cultural differences. Art in Russia--even visual art--is grounded in literature. Additionally, many artists have problems with the media-art-world's emphasis on communication and international dialogue as part of their artmaking, when they see such activities as a distraction from their real work.

Shulgin's report from Moscow also raises issues about net- and media-art that are generally unknown to Westerners. When we think about this subject at all, most of us do so only in "objective" terms: the telephone lines in Russia are decrepit, the computers old, perhaps there is no proper training for digital artists-of-the-future, there is insufficient money, bandwidth, expensive access providers and the like. All of this is true, but it is also true for many Western- and Southern European countries. I have a relative perspective; the problems are slightly different everywhere: In Switzerland, too much money and therefore no interest; in Hungary, an unwillingness to get organized; in Germany, telecommunications problems and a deep distrust of technology; in Austria, difficulties in collaborating; and almost everywhere, a hegemony of small, commercial providers that inhibit artistic development.

But what interests me more are the prejudices and unspoken objections to media-art in general by the cultural powers-that-be. In Moscow I found the most outspoken resistence to such art, but similar tendencies exist everywhere: In Romania and Bulgaria, as well as among right-wing elites in the West who obsess about the decline of civilization. We all know Neil Postman's objections to television. In George Steiner's elitist Real Presence, media is suitable only for "secondary souls," while real artists supposedly resist novelty. Most of these prejudices are difficult to counter because they are not openly expressed. Few conservative art critics commit their resentments to paper. Yet they are clearly expressed between the lines. The underlying resistence to new media means that computers remain in the hands of corporations, universities and large institutions.

Where does this resentment come from? Some sources:
--The dominance of literature over visual art and, by extension, over all the new media of the 20 century. Writers and art critics, being the traditional intellectual class, still exert control over grants, subsidies, and cultural policies.
--The fear of an older generation about losing their jobs. Many (not unreasonably) feel incapable of being retrained, which is a univeral problem.
--The shallow intellectual discourse about new media. Cyber-critics are few and young critics are generally unschooled when it comes to media-art and theory--or media history.
--The "dark side" of the current hype surrounding the Internet--and the backlash to that hype. The banal image of of media art makes even marginal arts like performance, neo-conceptual, and mail or fax art look serious compared to the empty promise of the Internet.
--The economic "crisis" in the art scene. Artists wish to produce saleable
'objects'. This is an historical problem in connection with previous generations of video artists.
--The fear of becoming a crafts(wo)man (programmer/designer) and
obviating the possibility of becoming a "genius" artist. The artist-as-engineer (and vice-versa ) still doesn't sound very serious, despite, well, everything.
--Some particular cultural pheonomena like religion. The Orthodox Church, for example, prefers to see a return to traditional art forms and content, which can even incorporate video monitors! (Witness current Balkan art).
--An unspoken antipathy toward mass culture, including--especially?--the media and the Internet.
--The notion that experimentation, avant-gardism, the underground, counter-cultures and alternative movements are bygone historical categories in an age of professionalism. This also extends to a fear of being associated with amateur undertakings that will ultimately lead nowhere.

How can we challenge these bureaucrats and their house-intellectuals? Perhaps it is a waste of time. Should we try to theorize the current conservativism in order to better understand why--despite all the hype--media art experimentation remains so marginal virtually everywhere? Many cyber visionairies proclaim a sort of inevitable revolution from below, inherent in the logic of the technology. Among net activists and artists there is a strong desire for a paradigm shift that seems to be in the air. But perhaps entirely different processes--political and social--are taking place around us, if we only allow ourselves to look away from the screen for a moment.


Geert Lovink is a member of Adilkno, the Amsterdam-based Foundation for the Advancement of Illegal Knowledge and part of an international effort to establish "Net Criticism" . He is currently moderating the discussion for Ars Electronica '96 .


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