This is an online version of the lecture I made at the Photo-Robot workshop, within 9th International Summer Art School Images of a Floating Memory in Sremski Karlovci 2009. It was based upon the video lecture Bastards of the Cool which was presented at the 2D MutantZombies project exhibition in Medienkunstlabor in Graz 2007, and which in turn was an elaboratin of the public lecture n-Dimensional Zombies: The Possibility of n-Mutation that I gave at the 6th International Summer Art School Some Like It Hot in Pirot 2006.
The general approach to identity in contemporary art originates in post-conceptual and post-modernist deconstruction of artistic identity of the Seventies and the Eighties that, by the influence of cultural studies during the Nineties, established itself as some kind of official pluralist platform in today’s culture, in which the identity is instrumentalized into a universal paradigm.
In contemporary art and art theories, the identity is predominantly addressed from psychological, gender, racial, ethnic, social and political aspects. Significantly, all these are aspects perceive the identity mainly in personal, public and social, that is, in cultural context. Cultural context is highly relational, it depends on social trends, and relies on linguistic process of recognition-repetition in which creativity can be easily scaled down to choice, consumerism, combination or competition as we choose, consume, combine or compete for our social identities.
While this approach might seem to be logical, concerning the concept of culture as a self-aware and self-explanatory system, it obviously underrates or disregards some other aspects of identity. Moreover, it is quite questionable if the cultural aspect of identity is nearly as relevant as it is usually presented, and it can be argued that some other approaches are more important, and maybe fundamental, for our understanding of the world.
The freedom to change one’s identity is certainly not the freedom of choice, combination or competition within the given cultural platform, however complex it might be, but it is in understanding and changing the causes that generate the platform. As Michel Houellebecq cynically proposes in his novel Atomised (Elementary Particles), freedom is not in the choice between different sexual or gender policies, but it is in the choice of being sexual or asexual, that is, in overcoming sexuality as a biological disposition.
Many artists prefer distanced, skewed or distorted approach to the identity issues to the culturally accepted or expected ones. Some of them explore the material aspects of identity such as physical and biological, >and develop their creative strategies in accoradnce with the etymology of the word individual, which denotes the one which defines oneself in an abstract and non-verbal process of becoming and self-determination.
Kraftwerk, Computer World, record cover, 1981
G. & G., Living Sculpt., 1970.
Laibach, Occupied Europe Tour, poster, 1983.
One of the smartest and most influential approaches to identity is that of ambivalent over-statement, or over-augmentation, which the German art phenomenon, Kraftwerk, applied in an innovative and intelligent way in the early Seventies. Working within the context of pop-music but acquiring the attitude of self-satisfied, well-situated, middle-class, Mid-European technocrats in their music and in their appearances, they drove many of their contemporaries crazy at the time. They made it very hard to distinguish weather they seriously believed in the values they were promoting, criticizing them, or cynically exploiting them. Thus, the super-identification becomes a quality in itself.
And, like always in art, Kraftwerk had many predecessors, a particular example being Gilbert and George with their life-long, and ongoing, Living Sculptures project which they initiated in the Sixties. But Kraftwerk strategy can be found later as well, for example in Neue Slowenische Kunst, especially in their Laibach musical section, with their use, and abuse, of political ideology, its mechanisms and effects. Laibach’s militant, and self-obliterating attitude of collectivism and totalitarianism made them notorious during the Eighties.
D. Arbus, Child with a toy hand grenade, 1962.
Duane Hanson, Woman Eating, 1971.
Ron Mueck, Baby, 2004.
Somewhat similar approach of ambivalently extreme identification with a subject matter can be found in Diane Arbus, and in her ability to reveal the quirky, freakish, perverse or decadent nature of her fellow Americans, mixed with a strange and almost repulsive sense of sympathy. She worked as a freelance photographer during the Sixties, which put her in a position to sample the rich variety of the U.S. culture. The recent attempt to bring her work to the broader audience is Steven Shainberg's 2006 feature Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus.
If there is a special relationship between mimicry, identification and sympathy, than it can be enjoyed in Duane Hanson’s hyperrealist tableaux sculptures, also dealing with the Americans. Or, we can feel something like that in recent recycling of the strangeness of perception and scale in Ron Mueck’s hyperrealist figuration. His works are usually funny but at the same time, the oddly rescaled vulgarity of their abundant details feels strange and almost threatening.
Ben Gest, Jennifer in Her Rooftop Garden, 2003.
Cindy Sherman, Untitled Film Still #53, 1979.
The similar technique but in different medium produces completely different feeling. In Ben Gest’s large scale, highly detailed composite photographs of friends and relatives in their everyday banality, he renders an unexpected warmth and belonging.
How the situation, and our positioning in it, can become the identity denominator and a playground in itself, Cindy Sherman explored extensively in her immense body of work. Most notably in Film Stills series which re-examine not only the parameters of the female self and self-representation, but also the cultural relations between photography, film and painting.
Dinos and Jake Chapman, Zygotic Acceleration..., 1995.
Pleix, Beauty Kit, video, 2001.
But the context itself, cultural or whatever, is far from enough to provide us with individual qualities, which is painfully evident in the superficial abundance of our consumerist society. Jake and Dinos Chapman operate exactly with this notion. They are relentless, bitter, offensive or gross, but usually very, very true. A similar critique and questioning of the mediated identity constituents, are in this video of French art collective Pleix, from 2001.
Nobuyoshi Araki, Kinbaku (Bondage), 1979.
Spencer Tunick, Mexico City 4, 2007.
Where Pleix gently touches the (female) sexuality and its cultural position, Nobuyoshi Araki unleashes an outrageous tour de force. Araki’s idiosyncrastic sexism may be controversial and exploitative, but a weirdly profound sense of compassion of his outstanding perceptiveness and photographic technique, manage to turn all that into an ambiguous, uneasy mix, in which we are all either the perpetrators or the accomplices.
Mixing bodies and architecture in a simple and yet effective way, Spencer Tunick brings us down to the fact that it is extremely difficult for us, and for our bodies, to mean anything, let alone dignity and self-respect.
A. Apostol, Limoges, 2001.
Andreas Gursky, Hong Kong Stock Exchange, 1994.
Sze Tsung Leong, Pokfulan, Honk Kong, 2003.
Moreover, the architecture can often acquire much stronger and more persuasive individuality than people. Alexander Apostol demonstrates that paradoxically, by digitally removing the details from the facades of the buildings.
Someone once said that Andreas Gursky’s photographs create the impression which the extraterrestrials could have observing our cultural infrastructure from the deep space. Maybe, but his work is also invested with very human, highly developed and highly intelligent asthetic sense of combined alienation, compassion and critique. Sze Tsung Leong does something like that, but with more down-to-the-ground social and urban feeling for intensively capitalizing China.
AES, The Witnesses of the Future, Bilbao, 2001.
H. Haacke, Freedom..., 1990.
The Yes Men Fix the World, plakat, 2009.
Architecture transforms people, but it is still the people who manipulate architecture and our environment in general. The excellent Postcard series of Russian art group AES playfully criticizes the cultural anxieties and ideological hegemony struggles that we tend to oversee, or rather deny, in everyday life. Using a simple simulation of the possible West-East conflict aftermath, AES nicely remind us of how culture becomes us, and how hypocritical and prejudiced we truly are.
The hypocrisy, power and corruption of capital, and of the cultural production within it, provide the main ground for Hans Haacke's politically charged, relational art. His works are complex, elaborated essays cracking the appearance, and demystifying the dirty games and shady deals behind many decent-looking, high-profile corporate philanthropic projects.
Yes, and The Yes Men, bring that into the realm of tactical activism, assuming the identities of high officials in the world of global finance and multinational corporations, and appearing subversively at their symposia, fairs and gatherings. The Yes Men’s pranks and diversions are sometimes goofy, but certainly address the important issues of totalizing and instrumentalizing capital.
Takeshi Murata, Silver, 2006.
Graphitti Research Laboratory, Laser Tag, 2006.
So, if the institutional identity is in the appearance and in our perception of it, the identity of digital image is certainly in the nature of pixel as its core element, and in the mathematical database logic and compression. The recent video works of Takeshi Murata, also an American, deal with these media qualities, although on a purely æsthetic or, rather, formalist level.
Artists are sometimes accused of being opportunistic and superficial in using the technologies in order to create the works that criticize the systems which produced these very technologies. However questionable this issue might be, since artists have been doing that throughout history and often with great achievements, the Graphitti Research Laboratory brings the idea of urban guerilla to a new technical level, which is, well, environmentally friendly… However, the problem with graphitti urban guerilla could be that it became a business itself, and nobody pays real attention to it anymore. Their demos are fun to watch, though.
Karl Kliem, A. Noto & R. Sakamoto, Insen, 2005.
Robert Seidel, _grau, video, 2004.
Turning the spray can into laser beam maybe redefines the graphitti art, but encoding the video stream from the algorithm surely redefines the video as the medium, and that is what artists like Karl Kleim do. This is one in his series of video works for a collaborative project of Carsten Nicolai, another German artist who uses programming, with Ryuichi Sakamoto. German artist Robert Seidel made his video work called _grau, by pure programming.
If, in respect of identity, these artists and/or artworks can be considered as cool then, creating the Photo-Robot project with such references in mind, we can be metaphorically designated as bastards of the cool in the sense that our approaches and our productions have their own lives with their particular interests, values, points, aims and scores.
Tor Nørretranders, The User Illusion, Penguin Science, New York, 1999.
Piero Scaruffi, The Nature of Consciousness, Omniware, 2006.
Fritjof Capra, The Tao of Physics, Shambhala Publications, Inc., 2000.
Michel Houllebecq, Atomised, Vintage, 2001.
Matt Ridley, The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature, 2003.
Matt Ridley, Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters (P.S.), Harper Perennial, 2006.
Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2006.
Donald Symons, The Evolution of Human Sexuality, Oxford University Press, 1981.