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The Technological Regime on Newness: Technology, Art, and Temporality

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Abstract

This is a translated lecture draft for the exhibition, Future and the Arts: AI, Robotics, Cities, Life - How Humanity Will Live Tomorrow, The Mori Art Museum, Tokyo, Japan (13 January, 2020) https://www.mori.art.museum/en/index.html The main focus of the lecture is the issues that I have discussed in my previous papers (i.e., Regimes on newness, Multiple personae etc) namely the problem of the contemporary techno-art that relies on the innovative aspects of progressive technologies that eventually bring about the rapid obsolescence of their technological elements. Focused here is the different temporalities that co-exist within the art regime that may reveal the alternative ways of regarding artwork from the existing view of evaluating it with its progressive temporality.
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The Technological Regime on Newness: Technology, Art, and Temporality
Lecture Draft for
Future and the Arts
exhibition, The Mori Art Museum, Tokyo, Japan
(13 January, 2020)
Masato Fukushima
Introduction
The current exhibition at the Mori Art Museum,
Future and the Arts
,
deals with the future of the realm that lies in the interface between diverse
emerging technologies such as AI, bio, and so forth, and related art forms that
are inspired by the former. This exhibition may raise a wide range of issues, one
of which is historical reflection on the interface between art and technology,
which is where these two terms actually overlap in terms of their semantic
extension: namely, art as fine artthat is, the collections of technology and
techniques related to drawing, painting, and sculptureas distinguished from
crude art, consisting of diverse technologies beyond the former. Hence, the
arttechnology relationship, in essence, is equivalent to inter- or even
infra-technological dynamics. Meanwhile, the characteristics of the art world
that cannot be easily identified with the semantic extension of technology
either crude or finemay also prompt us to scrutinize the very value of so-called
avant-garde art, which often seems to rely on the recent development of such
progressive technologies as the digital, bio, and even nano kind.
Among the topics worthy of discussion, I will focus on the problem of
temporality in the arttechnology relationship, especially in terms of its
emerging phase. In particular, we will look at innovation, which is defined as the
constant pursuit of newness, and society’s widespread heavy reliance on it in
recent years. This can be easily witnessed both in the policy slogan for
technological innovation as the basis of our economic growth and in the common
trend to evaluate emerging artworks according to their “innovative”
characteristics, as if the value of art lies, in essence, in its technological
innovativeness.
Against this prevailing perspective of the art/technology nexus that seems
to tacitly assume an innovation-centric view” of technology (to be discussed
later), this lecture tries to counter-pose a more diversified image of an
alternative nexus, with emphasis on the multiple layers of different historical
2
temporalities. For this purpose, I also look at antiquesnamely, historical
objects that are considered to have redeeming value precisely because of their
historicityfor the sake of presenting how the value of contemporary art can be
re-scrutinized with a gaze radically different from that of the prevailing
innovation centrism (1).
Obsolescence
One of the truisms that immediately comes to mind when we discuss the
drawbacks of valuing any change solely for its degree of innovation is how
quickly the novelty in innovation turns into obsolescence. Such warnings as
“avoid fashionable words that corrupt swiftly” remain true for composing any
prose. The fashion industry, in this sense, is a living museum of such rapid cycles
of changing currencies. Books like
100 Ideas That Changed Fashion
(Worsley,
2019) display once-prevalent fashion trends that now only inspire a sense of
nostalgia in those who experienced the fashions in the past, and a sense of
wonder or even quaintness in those who were not alive during their time.
Similar feelings arise when we now watch the so-called
torendi dorama
, the soap
operas on Japanese TV that were fashionable in the 1980s: those superficial
scenarios of almost semantically-patterned triangular love relationships among
the major characters, often accompanied with then-cutting-edge stage props
such as pocket bells. We feel the passage of time keenly when we view
contemporary American dramas like
Homeland
in contrast, its main character
being a CIA staffer who suffers from bipolar disorder and fights against the
impending but invisible threats of terrorism of various kinds. In the street
culture, the
ganguro
gals (gals making their face pitch black) spoke a specific
gibberish, like
choberigu-choberiba
, which was once regarded as a symbol of the
typical girlish way of talk, while the style of
wan-ren bodikon
(straight hair and
a body-conscious outlook) was a quaint symbol of how our economy prospered in
the 80s at the height of the bubble economy in Japan (2).
Technological Hype Cycles
While such swift obsolescence in avant-garde fashion is commonly
observed, the sociology of technology scrutinizes the often inflated language used
for depicting the future of emerging technologies. Such decorative discourse is
usually colored with a somewhat exaggerated image of a shining future that will
materialize with the use of the very technology that is focused upon. Science and
3
technology studies (STS) scholars call the study of such discourse the sociology
of expectation upon an examination of the diverse functions of such discourse,
namely, the objective of engineers to raise funds and to bring their projects to the
eyes of policy makers (Borup
et al
, 2006). We also know that this kind of
discourse may wax and wane, and its cyclic dynamics have been schematized by
Gartner, Inc., as hype cycles in their analytic tools for diagnosing the current
status of technological development (3). This characterization may be somewhat
too schematic, and hence simplistic, in terms of describing the more complex
reality of the actual paths of expectation. Nevertheless, it provides an important
lesson concerning the unstable dynamics of expectation, which may change from
overt optimism at an early phase, through the almost inevitable downfall of such
a feeling to the enduring aftermath of recovery from the damage of
disappointment, which may be fatal.
This schematic of the hype cycle leaves us a few lessons concerning both
the merit and the drawbacks of overblown images of emerging technology, which
surely affect the minds of those artists, as well, who find them inspiring. Our
edited book,
Forecasting and Society
, discusses the multiple features of
forecasting and foresight in such diverse fields as science policy and economic
forecasting, as well as various attempts to simulate the future (Yamaguchi and
Fukushima, 2019).
Against an Innovation-centered View
In relation to detailed studies on expectation dynamics as related to
emerging technologies, another type of study critically reexamines the very basis
of the perspective that regards innovation as the sole component of technology
dynamics. British historian David Edgerton, in his book
The Shock of the Old
,
straightforwardly criticizes the current academic custom of writing the history
of technology by focusing only on its innovative sidenamely, by describing the
emerging side of technologies, one after another, disregarding the large corpus of
technologies that have been used widely in a more steady and stable manner.
Edgerton calls the former type of technology technology-as-innovation” and the
latter, “technology-in-use.Against the present convention of writing only about
technology-as-innovation, he counter-poses a historiography that details the way
people actually use such mundane technologies(-in-use) as condoms, oxcarts and
trains with impressive detail about the way these are used in diverse parts of
the world over the very long term without much change (Edgerton, 2006).
4
Edgerton’s emphasis on technology-in-use also reminds us of another
trend in research, namely the study of infrastructure, which has been somewhat
in currency in recent years in diverse fields in and out of STS. Infrastructure is
usually defined as those technological entities that hardly attract public
attention as long as they function smoothly. Whereas Karen Ruhleder and Susan
Leigh Star once referred to them as “invisible” (Star and Ruhleder, 1996), they
may become visible at both ends of the developmental cycle: namely, in the early
days of construction, and in their last days of decay and repair, at which time
they may raise public concern and become “visible” through public attention.
Some aspects of such invisible techno-structure have been discussed
independently from infrastructure studies, with a focus on its continuous aspect
in history, in terms of “obduracy (Hommels, 2008). Obduracy refers to the fact
that once a particular structure of urban technological elements is formulated,
like the road network, it may persist a long time, with any ensuing alteration
done in line with the previous structure. A similar argument that additionally
emphasizes the historical trajectory of the natural environment is proposed by
Japanese architect Yoshiaki Miyamoto, with his seminal concept of
“environmental noise. Miyamoto defines environmental noise as the subtly
perceptible distortion in the surface of an urban landscape that has been formed
by the very trajectory of the place in reverting to its natural form, such as the
shape of the land, as well as to its historical layers of urban development
planning. Miyamato illustrates with the cases of a rather irrationally shaped
street, which is so because it is a remnant from a plan for a railway that was
never built, or an odd housing pattern that was built around an ancient mound,
and so forth (Miyamoto, 2007).
Such an academic gaze for the longitudinal study of technology may find
its intellectual ancestry in the writings of Fernand Braudel and his model of
three-layered temporality, presented in his multi-volume study
The
Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II
. Braudel’s
model for time consists of
longue durée
(long duration), deriving from such
elements as geographical structure that affects history for centuries;
conjoncture
(conjuncture), which is represented by economic cycles that last for decades; and
évènement
(events), short cycle of changes, such as political events. In fact,
despite the reference to Philip II in the title, the major portion of the volumes is
dedicated to describing the stable geographical structure of the Mediterranean
area that provided both affordance and constraints on the diverse activities in
5
the entire area (Braudel, 1975-78).
The Audience that Matters
Following such existing arguments on the layered aspects of temporality
in the study of history in general and that of technology in particular, the
problem of innovation in the art world seems to provide an intriguing case of
differing logics of temporality existing side by side. This is caused mostly by the
very heterogeneous constitution of the art world, consisting of such social groups
as artists themselves, galleries, museums, academia, the art market as a whole,
and the diverse components of the public as such.
Before exploring this topic more deeply, I should note that my perspective
on the issue relies on a framework derived from the following authors of diverse
origin. First is Makoto Aida, a contemporary artist in Japan widely known for
his often-controversial works that satirically describe contemporary social issues
in diverse ways. He is a favorite figure for the Mori Art Museum as well, as
witnessed by the large-scale retrospective exhibition here with the Japanese
title “Sorry for being a genius (4).
In the introductory remarks to a book that commemorates fifty years of
the private art school
Bigakkô
, Aida pithily summarizes the job of artist as two
essential acts: namely, to make things and to show them to the public. He
describes, with just a touch of pathos, the trajectory of the very ambition of
artists, which is to change the world through their works, after which they must
face the harsh reality that such a thing will never happen because of the
indifference of the audience. Artists’ frustration urges them to work even more,
with the same result, and Aida confesses that this is the cause of his hesitation
in encouraging and mentoring a new generation of artists (Bigakkô, 2019). His
remarks demonstrate both the significance and the centrality of the audience, as
well as the intrinsic nature of mis- or even dis-communication between the artist
and his expected audience.
The pivotal role the audience plays in the very constitution of the art
world is elaborated upon by John Dewey, among others, in his
Art as Experience
(Dewey, 1934). I take up his argument for two reasons: first, although this work
is relatively unknown in the larger corpus of his pragmatic philosophy, which
has been well studied, it provides a very detailed approach to the meaning of
artwork; and second, there has been a visible rise of his social pragmatism in
STS circles in recent years as well, which I will comment on later.
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In this book, Dewey explores the meaning of artwork in terms of how it
works in the experience of the audience more systematically than Aida’s
somewhat instinctive confirmation of it. Dewey claims that the work of art does
not consist solely as an isolated piece with objective aesthetic qualityreflecting
the Kantian thesis of the objective aesthetics that Dewey opposesbut that it
should be re-contextualized to include the experience of the audience. In brief,
the work of art includes its effect on the audience: the whole configuration of the
artwork/audience nexus is what matters in artwork (Dewey, 1934). The potential
in Dewey’s argument has not been fully explored until very recently and largely
on the North American academic scene, with the rise in the sociological study of
pop culture that follows Dewey’s pragmatist aesthetics (Schusterman, 1992) and
the burgeoning realms of the philosophy of environment (Berleant, 1992) and of
everyday aesthetics (Saito, 2007), to say nothing of the visible rediscovery of
Dewey’s approach to science, democracy, and the public that has prompted a sort
of mass conversion to his philosophy from certain quarters of the core set of STS
(Rabinow and Bennet, 2012; Hennion, 2013 on Latour’s recent work).
Intriguingly, yet another author with a completely different intellectual
origin has pursued a similar line of argumentnamely, Marcel Duchampwho
also underscored that it is not the artist but the audience, or the future
generation, that matters for determining the value of art (Cabanne, 1972). Both
Dewey and Duchamp challenged the belief that it is the intrinsic quality of the
artwork that matters, thus decentering their role in evaluating it. Duchamp’s
argument, however, also has a few auxiliary elements with a different emphasis
because his enemy was different from Dewey’s; for Dewey, it was the Kantian
aesthetics of objectivity, whereas for Duchamp, it was the common belief in
classical museum pieces, where he wanted to show that they have a limited
lifespan as effective artwork. In another interview, Duchamp claimed that the
life span of artwork may be forty years, and for the rest of its existence, the work
will be part of a museum collection (Charbonnier, 1994), insinuating that
artworks therein are almost like fossilsif, of course, the piece was luckily
bought by a museum.
Considering these similar perspectives that regard the audience, the
public, or later generations as the center of assessing the value of art, the
problem of temporality in contemporary art vis-à-vis its close relationship with
the rapidly changing landscape of emerging technologies can be reiterated as a
cluster of arguments: namely, the risk of rapid obsolescence as artwork vis-à-vis
7
ongoing innovation; the difficulty of managing the ups and downs of expectation
for the future of technology and techno-art, so to speak; and the unpredictable
consequences of such a volatile situation. Duchamps emphasis on the limited
life span of the effectiveness of artworks simultaneously dismisses the role of the
museum pieces as fossils or even
antiques
terms that Duchamp implied but did
not exactly employed. Here, however, I find it worthy to re-examine artwork in
light of Braudel’s layered temporalities, against Duchamp’s more pessimistic
claim of their limited lifespan in a seemingly single layer of time.
The Social Life of Antiques
Considering the role of innovation-centrism in assessing the value of both
technology and (latently) contemporary art, the world of antiques poses a series
of intriguing puzzles. Etymologically speaking, the word “antique comes from
the Latin term
antiquus
, meaning old, as an antonym to
modernus
(new).
Obviously, the basic principles for evaluating antiques are their oldness as well
as their historicity or legend-richness. An antique’s economic value derives from
its scarcity value in the market as well.
In contrast to the English etymological origin of
antique
as something old,
its Japanese equivalent,
kottô
, reveals a more complex etymology, as the term
comprises the element of bones (
kotsu
), both in its Chinese original and its
Japanese version. Historians have long wondered why: Fukosai Hirota, a
well-known expert on antiques and author of a book that looks behind the scenes
of the antique business (Hirota, 2019), takes up this issue in his reference to a
Chinese book, titled
Thirteen Theories of Antiques
, written by a Chinese scholar
in the era of the Ming dynasty. This Chinese author confirms the most plausible
theory of the origin of “antique (
kottô
) as referring to a state wherein the real
essences of thingstheir
bones
are revealed after people have used them for a
long time. In other words, the attraction of antiques, or
kottô
, lies in the gradual
emergence of their intrinsic beauty after their superfluous elements have been
gradually erased by long everyday use.
This “theory” of the emergence of beauty as an antique’s
bones
after the
gradual erasure of surface beauty with long-term use reminds me of a rather
peculiar ritual of the Torajas in central Sulawesi, Indonesia. These people have
been long known among cultural anthropologists for their eye-attracting
ship-shaped houses and their peculiar funerals (Yamashita, 1988). Funerals are
characterized by sheer scale, demanding the dedication of the whole community
8
as one, and by their specific way of burying the deadnamely, their doing it
twice. A while after the first burial, when the body has lost its flesh in the land,
the corpse is unearthed to be washed clean, and the very skeleton, now exposed
without flesh, is decorated with tiny clothes and thus celebrated as a member of
the community again. By this rather exotic process, the dead become full
members of their ancestors, as if confirming the initiation process theorized by
Arnold van Gennep (1960) a long time ago.
The
Bones
of Artworks
Both the classical theory of antiques-as-bones and the mysterious ritual of
washing bones in Indonesia above are strangely reminiscent of the specific
trajectory of any artwork, which may be followed from its birth to death and
even to its potential regeneration. In fact, it is almost ubiquitously true that the
initial context of any artwork can be easily lost as time passes and the audience
of later generations is often not aware of how this or that work was made and
what for. The long dispute over who the model is for the Mona Lisa demonstrates
the loss of initial information, thus attracting attention for generations. In some
cases, even the very background and the life-story have not been preserved, as in
the cases of Hyeronymous Bosch or Pieter Brueghel. I was deeply impressed by
an early folk landscape painting in the Boston Museum where the shapes of
mountains, seashores, and figures are almost surrealistically distorted; yet,
absolutely no information was found on the artist or on his or her intention,
background, and so on.
Besides, over the passing of time, once favored artworks may face a
decline of popularity that ends in oblivion, such as the case of Sandro Botticelli,
whose works were long regarded as one of the unfashionable local painters, and
experts should pass by his works in the museum (Ohno
et al,
2013). My favorite
paintings of Casper-David Friedrich, whose dark paintings were once highly
regarded, lost popularity after his death because of their allegedly too-gloomy
atmosphere, which did not fit with the social atmosphere in the era of the
Biedermeier paintings that followed, with their merry ambience aimed at the
rising generation of the petit-bourgeoisie (Neidhardt, 1981).
Some artworks, however, may gain a new spotlight after their virtual
burial in oblivion, or their bones may be unearthed and given new clothes, to use
our ethnological metaphor. Taro Okamoto provides an intriguing case of such
re-unearthing in recent years because he was a sort of black sheep in the
9
domestic art world, whose name art critics appeared to avoid mentioning for
some time, owing largely to his participation in a government project like the
Osaka Expo 1970 (Ohno
et al,
2013), or his appearance in the commercial
activities that I witnessed, where he amusingly played the role of a mad artist.
In other cases, the classic works may take on a new symbolic significance, like
the case of the great Mona Lisa, whose newly added mustache to her copy has
become the symbol of contemporary art.
Art, Technology, and Temporality
To summarize the preceding argument: The relationship between rapid
technological change and the contemporary art that relies on such rapidly
innovating technology as digital, bio, and so forth, reveals a couple of pivotal
issues that require careful reflection. First, references to the role of the audience
which I believe is the core of the constitution of a work of artoften seem to be
missing when the value of emerging techno-art is discussed. Very often it is the
claims of the artists themselves, who use this or that innovative technology that
are narrowly spotlighted, whereas the voices of the diverse audience have often
been disregarded. The harsh reality that may await such seemingly avant-garde
artworks, however, is the inevitable obsolescence of the technological part of
their artworks, which once seemed to be so progressive, like the
torendi dorama
in the 80s. Fashion trends of various kinds, including those in both technology
and artworks, change so constantly, and nobody knows how long such trends
may last. Sociologists of technology development have focused upon such ups
and downs as hype cycles, thus underscoring the difficulty of predicting precisely
which technological hype may survive and which may not after the inevitable
collapse of earlier inflated expectations.
The concept of bones, as etymologically related to
kottô
(antique), is
suggestive in this sense: the concept of
kottô
relies on a principle contrary to an
innovation-centric view of artnamely, the principle of the
longue durée
, so to
speak, of the object. Contrary to Duchamp’ s pessimistic view on the short-lived
nature of the actual effectiveness of artwork upon the audience, this
bone-centered perspective, so to speak, underscores a somewhat more positive
view of artwork as to its intrinsic value, which
may
survive the ups and downs of
historical evaluation that changes through time.
A question still remains: are there really bones within any artwork that
survive the trial of time? I confess I am not very sure; however, one thing I am
10
inclined to believe is what Christian Boltanski stated in his interview about the
essence of artwork: namely, that it is an effort to deal with the age-old questions
of, say, the pursuit of God, sex, death, and the beauty of nature, but with
different means (Boltanski and Grenier, 2010; cf. Fukushima, 2019b). Though I
rather think the question is empirical in nature, I believe that my image of bones
is useful, inasmuch as it relates to the eternal verities, even though our own
bones will eventually dissolve into the earth (4).
Note
(1) For space reasons, the exegesis of the meaning of regime in the title of the
lecture does not appear in the main text. For a more detailed discussion of its
meaning, see Fukushima (2019a).
(2) These terms are deciphered as
cho
(very, Japanese)
beri
(very)
gu
(good), or
ba
(bad). In the 1980s, I remember hearing a lecture from an economist who
insisted that the major role of contemporary entrepreneurs is to translate this
type of consumer voice, in the form of gals language (which he defined as tacit)
into a more formal language that is market friendly.
(3) https://www.gartner.com/en
(4)https://www.mori.art.museum/english/contents/aidamakoto_main/about/inde
x.html
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