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Tensions and Transformations: Mapping the intersection between contemporary art and the network society

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This essay presents an investigation of the interplay between curatorial practices and theories, contemporary art, and network cultures and technologies in contemporary societies. Network cultures refers to the social condition in which social organisations and practices are formulated by networked relationships linking people, objects, things and more agencies (Castells, 2010a, p. xvii-xviii). Today, network technologies − such as the Internet, mobile phone, ubiquitous computing and blockchain − have enhanced the power of network cultures. They transform the 'predominant social organisational form of every domain of human activity' into networked structures, which gives rise to a form of society that Manuel Castells (2010c) called the network society. Within the immanent social dynamics in technological, economic, political and cultural sectors influenced by network cultures, we are experiencing a period of reidentification, recognition and negotiation of organisational structures, knowledge backgrounds and values systems (Varnelis 2008). The field of contemporary art has reflected such dynamics and underlying tensions. While network cultures and technologies have become trendy topics in contemporary art since the last decade, different standpoints coexist in the art ecology confronting the network culture's challenges to contemporary art (Vishmidt and Francis 2006; Graham and Cook 2010; Chatzichristodoulou 2013). Dynamic, intricate relationships are recognised between those standpoints, as well as between contemporary art ecology and the macro−forces associated with neoliberalism, techno-politics, globalisation and state power (Bishop 2012a; Dewdney et al. 2012; Garrett 2014; Scrimgeour and Vickers 2016). This essay targets those relationships and tensions beneath the prosperous interface between the interplay between contemporary art and the network society today. Accordingly, the aim is to configure the meanings, reasons and consequences of existing positions and their tensions in response to the question of, what are the roles and values of contemporary art in the network society? Is there a causal relationship between those positionalities and organisational forms, knowledge backgrounds and value systems in contemporary art ecology?
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Literature Review
Tensions and Transformations:
Mapping the intersection between contemporary art and the network society
Hang Li
This essay presents an investigation of the interplay between curatorial practices and
theories, contemporary art, and network cultures and technologies in contemporary
societies. Network cultures refers to the social condition in which social organisations and
practices are formulated by networked relationships linking people, objects, things and
more agencies (Castells, 2010a, p. xviixviii). Today, network technologies such as the
Internet, mobile phone, ubiquitous computing and blockchain have enhanced the power
of network cultures. They transform the 'predominant social organisational form of every
domain of human activity' into networked structures, which gives rise to a form of society
that Manuel Castells (2010c) called the network society. Within the immanent social dynamics
in technological, economic, political and cultural sectors influenced by network cultures, we
are experiencing a period of reidentification, recognition and negotiation of organisational
structures, knowledge backgrounds and values systems (Varnelis 2008). The field of
contemporary art has reflected such dynamics and underlying tensions.
While network cultures and technologies have become trendy topics in contemporary art
since the last decade, different standpoints coexist in the art ecology confronting the
network culture's challenges to contemporary art (Vishmidt and Francis 2006; Graham and
Cook 2010; Chatzichristodoulou 2013). Dynamic, intricate relationships are recognised
between those standpoints, as well as between contemporary art ecology and the
macroforces associated with neoliberalism, techno-politics, globalisation and state power
(Bishop 2012a; Dewdney et al. 2012; Garrett 2014; Scrimgeour and Vickers 2016). This essay
targets those relationships and tensions beneath the prosperous interface between the
interplay between contemporary art and the network society today. Accordingly, the aim is
to configure the meanings, reasons and consequences of existing positions and their tensions
in response to the question of, what are the roles and values of contemporary art in the
network society? Is there a causal relationship between those positionalities and
organisational forms, knowledge backgrounds and value systems in contemporary art
ecology?
1. Tensions of contemporary art in the network society
The exhibition of new media and digital art in physical galleries has become a major
trend in ‘the mainstream art world’ since the last decade (Chatzichristodoulou 2013); that is,
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according to Clair Bishop (2015, p.201) and Marc Garrett (2014; 2017), a world consists of
dominant art institutions, galleries, media and collectors responsible to the art market at
large. Within blockbuster exhibitions, art fairs and a myriad of urban-regenerative, market-
oriented biennales and triennials, one type of art practice appears to be as a protagonist. This
type of practice appropriates network technologies as physical materials, network cultures
as topics and, sometimes, network economies as marketing, into the making of an art object
(Olson 2011; Bishop 2012b; Chatzichristodoulou 2013; Connor 2013; Quaintance 2015).
To understand the reason of this phenomenon, it is important to quickly unpack a period
of laboured discussion and debate in London between 2005 and 2010. Those discussions
were centred on the ‘the status of the museum or gallery in relation to “the accelerating
technical processes that are transforming our life-world”' (Gere 2004). In his historical
reading of both institutional and media art practices, Charlie Gere (2004) points out the
inherent inconsistency between the two:
[…] an institution founded in and for the very different conditions of art production and
reception of the late nineteenth century, simply is not properly equipped to show such
work (about information and communications technologies, such as telephony, television,
computing, networking and so on), or at least not as it is presently constituted.
Gere indicates that, for embracing network cultures and technologies, a dominant art
institution like the Tate has a dilemma since the former threatens to uproot the conventional,
normative mode of ‘production and reception’ behind the mainstream art world. Likewise,
Matthew Fuller (2000) remarks:
According to the sociologist Jean Baudrillard (1981), ...the fixed reserve of the museum is
necessary for the functioning of the sign exchange of paintings. Museums often play the
role of banker in the political economy of paintings”. The Tate demonstrably follows this
function of the art museum. But crucially, in coming to some accommodation with the nets
it has had to abandon the gold standard that its reserve is founded upon. Individual
authorship; good provenance of works; uniqueness of objects; the 'autonomy' of art; are all
usurped by the artists, groups and processes producing the most suggestive work on the
web.
A discrepancy is pronounced in the literature of Gere and Fuller, which lies between the
entrenched art norms of centralised control to safeguard the universal exchange value of art
and surging network cultures indicating decentralised distributions for diverse, democratic
exchanges. This discrepancy, according to Victoria Walsh and Andrew Dewdney (2017),
means structural change appears inevitable if the role of art institutions is to advance
contemporary art and cultures. From another perspective, for those art institutions
attempting to reach out to certain groups of audiences aligned with network cultures, a
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different relationship between contemporary art, institutions and the audience must be
developed (Walsh and Dewdney 2017).
To reconfigure contemporary art in the network society, intensive discussions and
debates took place in London in the 2000s across the institutions and practitioners of
backgrounds and opinions of media art, network cultures and technologies (Catlow and
Garrett 2009, p.13). Cases in point include Tate Online (2000), Art and Money Online (2001)
and Intermedia (20082010), initiated and hosted by Tate, the DMZ media arts' festival
(2003) and NODE (20052010).
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Amongst those discussion activities, Node.London
(Networked Open Distributed Events London, 20052010) drew upon almost all the
institutions and agencies mentioned above, aiming at ‘sharing and developing the
infrastructure for media arts and related activities’ to ‘circumvent existing institutional and
commercial distribution channels’ (Catlow and Garrett 2009, p.4). NODE.London shared the
vision with the DMZ to promote media art and with Tate’s Intermedia to address ‘art that
comments on the social and political implications of new technology and practices that
challenge traditional ideas of the art object’ (Tate 2011a).
What distinguished NODE.London, however, is its aspiration in dissolving the
administration of media art under the brand name of an institution or festival. In this sense,
it embodied the distinct opportunity to explore art situated in the network society,
circumventing the mediation role of a centralised, hierarchical art institution by large, and
formulating networked communities or commons grounded directlyin network cultures
(Dewdney et al. 2012, pp.177179; 193198; Zouli 2017, pp.4344; 60). It was inspired by the
cultural intersection between Art, Engineering (software development) and Activism (for
social change)’, aiming ‘to develop an infrastructure and to take a decentralised approach to
curate a media arts' festival according to the ethos and methods of open cultural production,
on the understanding that these had always been a source of inspiration to media arts
practitioners' (Catlow and Garrett 2009). The diagram below (fig.1) indicates that, in the last
decade, a vision of the future's "art ecology"’. That was, the art world and activism, as well
as engineering were interlocked, and were willing to 'drink tea' to address the key issues
including facilitating media art, promoting network cultures and experimenting with a
networked, egalitarian organisational structure within and beyond art ecology (Catlow and
Garrett 2009; Vishmidt et al. 2009).
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Those discussions involved not merely those from the media and digital art front lines, such as the co-
founders of Furtherfield, Marc Garett and Ruth Catlow; new media art curators Sarah Cook, Beryl Graham and
Julian Stallabrass; art archivist Jon Ippolito and scholars studying the intersection between art, media and
technologies such as Fuller, Gere, Trebor Scholz and Josephine Berry. Numerous established art institutions of
diverse scales and positions were also actively supporting discussions, such as Tate, the Victoria and Albert
Museum, the Science Museum, the Whitechapel Gallery and the Institute of Contemporary Art (Cook et al. 2005;
Vishmidt and Francis 2006; Catlow and Garrett 2009; node.london. 2010; Tate 2011b).
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Before 2007, these agencies were committed to open, genuine conversation and
exchange. But the negotiation faded disgracefully after two years for three major reasons
(Catlow and Garrett 2009; Colin 2009). First, the agencies from the three fields found barriers
in collaboration due to the disjunction of their knowledge and work methods. Second, the
organiser contributed unequal time, skills, knowledge and financial support, while the flat-
networked organisational structure increased the difficulties in coordinating organisations
and participants. Third and most importantly, there was a lack of common language and
understanding of art and value within art ecology some mainstream art institutions and
the grassroots, technologically acknowledged art organisations could hardly achieve
knowledge exchange. The consensus within the art ecology confronting network cultures
and media art was one of disillusionment.
Fig.1 The diagram drew by Ruth Catlow to illustrate the relationship between participants.
The image caption writes: ‘Media Arts- Three Cups of Tea: Three Cultures: Drinking tea together suggests a base
level of informal openness, to being together, to conversation and conviviality. (Catlow and Garrett 2009)
Some major institutionsexemplified by the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) which
disbanded the Live & Media Arts Department in 2008 were convinced ‘the art form (of
media art) lacks the depth and cultural urgency’ (Quinn, 2008). In contrast, the ‘folks’ in
media art and network cultures insisted that media art lay at the forefront of contemporary
art and deserved more attention and support (Stallabrass 2009; Vishmidt et al. 2009).
Confronting this discrepancy entrenched in art ecology, Garret (2008) responded to the ICA’s
disapproval of the value of media art, stating:
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It is a shame that they have chosen not to expand and take on new forms of creativity in a
more positive manner. Yet, this is their choice, and perhaps it is more about keeping
certain jobs in the ICA at the top. And unfortunately, those who are staying in these
positions at the top are perhaps less interested in contemporary art and its ever-expanding
nuances. Not interested in relearning, adapting their knowledge about media art and other
related practices.
According to Garrett, there were different sets of knowledge, value and organisational
structures in the art ecology of 2008. Besides, the agencies in hierarchical institutions had
shown their disinterest and abandonment in reshaping their frameworks according to the
ever-shifting contemporary cultures introduced by network cultures. This chasm within the
art ecology of the 2000s became largely what the vexing discussion left to art ecology today.
Moreover, there have been problems also in the network organisations. As Ben Vickers
points out, ‘the primary problems holding back … the network society or even grassroots
organising’ lay in the weakness of networks, that 'networks of this nature are incapable of
maintaining tacit knowledge and organisational knowledge, which is something that
institutions have historically been very good at doing' (Scrimgeour and Vickers 2016).
Tensions and power struggles persist in the art ecology. It has been challenging for
networked organisations to alter hierarchical, market-fuelled art institutions. Conversely, the
latter must struggle between responding to network cultures as constituents of
contemporary cultures and maintaining their ingrained system of organisation, knowledge
and value exchange. Shifting our focus back to today, if we penetrate the appearance of
popular new media art in the art market, it is not challenging to identify that earlier
incongruencies and a chasm remain to date (Quaintance 2015; Scrimgeour and Vickers 2016;
Quaintance 2017; Garrett et al. 2018). The major change in the first half of the 2010s, as
indicated by Christiane Paul, the digital curator of the Whitney Museum, was in how (new)
media art was subsumed by the mainstream art world selectively, under the name post-
Internet art. According to the exhibition Art PostInternet (2014) of Ullence Centre of
Contemporary Art in Beijing:
[…] the post- refers not to a time ‘after’ the internet, but rather to an internet state of mind
to think in the fashion of the network. In the context of artistic practice, the category of
the post- describes an art object created with a consciousness of the networks within which
it exists, from conception and production to dissemination and reception.
This annotation alters the meaning of the internet as a network technology facilitating
network cultures to ‘an internet state of mind’ and a ‘fashion of the network’, incarnated in
the production and distribution of ‘the art object’ (Ullens Centre of Contemporary Art 2014).
Consequently, post-internet art is suspicious as reinforcing, rather than challenging, the
centralised, closed, institutional cultural representation (Archey and Peckham 2014, pp.124
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125). The success of the institutionalisation of network cultures and technologies is thus
seemingly grounded in how mainstream art institutions shun open, genuine discussions of
what the network society means to contemporary art. The debate regarding the definition
and value of contemporary art in the network society, therefore, is increasingly marginalised
and enclosed.
This transformation presents the question: What is the reason for and consequence of
this shift in the attitude of the mainstream art world? Moreover, after the disillusion of
NODE.London, how the technologically and socially informed art organisations position
themselves within the current art ecology, and in what value system do they ground their
practices? Lastly, if we consider not merely the interior of the contemporary art ecology in
London, but the political, economic and technological forces underpinning its value and
pattern on a transnational scale, how should we read the tensions between the discrete
standpoints and approaches within the art field today?
2. Co-opting network cultures into contemporary art
After nullifying onlineoffline distinctions
Today, the intersection between contemporary art and network cultures and technolo-
gies is becoming increasingly slippery to grasp. The former bifurcation of online and offline
to categorise art practices and programmes is invalid. There have been plenty of technolo-
gies such as the live-streaming social network platform, data surveillance and the Internet
of things which emerge from the overlapping area of the two and introduce different
‘spaces’ and ‘temporalities’ (Cornell and Halter 2015, p.xxvi). Besides technological factors,
many art practices are produced specifically to interrogate such distinction. For instance,
Max Grau’s bbBbddDdyYyy_ssssss _a_cCccCAAaGGgee (2019) and Laurie Simmons’s
Kigurumi, Dollers and How We See (2014) examined internet cultures through offline perfor-
mances and photography, respectively, while Cao Fei’s RMB City (20082010) and
Younghae Chang Heavy Industries’s SAMSUNG (1999) both reflect geopolitical and eco-
nomic issues by producing artwork through network technologies such as online gaming
and Flash.
As identified by Lauren Cornell and Ed Halter (2015, p.xxvi), the ‘entangled intertwin-
ing of online and offline existence’, which has dominated contemporary art, has rendered
the era of net.art a history of confrontation between ‘net.art’s institutionalisation vs. its con-
tinued underground existence … premature’. The radical, abundant amalgamation today,
however, appears to be a rationalisation of the nihilism or disorientation of the art ecology in
configuring and examining the interface between contemporary art and network culture
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technologies. Ben Vickers (2014, p.98) responds to this growing amalgamation propelled by
post-Internet art as follows:
I don’t know any more.
There was a time, when this wasn’t a definitive capture all term, it had a genuine use value,
in so much that there was a moment when it was difficult to describe the work that was be-
ing produced in a particular online community, probably around 200611. This work
seemed to stand out from other forms of artistic production and in discussion existing writ-
ing/discourse couldn’t really convey what was being pursued; so it was useful to be able to
reference a shorthand, to advance discussion, increasingly that shorthand became postInter-
net. Similar to the way that #stacktivism
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now acts as a wrapper for a specific conversation
about infrastructure.
Now I guess I’d define postInternetas a lost sign post to a community that doesn’t exist
anymore, one that fell apart due to opportunists and general distrust but that serves as a
convenient marketing term for dealers and young curators wanting to establish themselves
on the first rung of the art industrial complex ladder.
An ambivalence towards post-internet art, network cultures and art institutions as well as
the underpinning art industry exists in Vickers’s (Archey et al. 2014, p.115) feeling to post-
internet art:
I would say that I have benefited significantly from the cooption of postinternet by long
standing institutions and entrenched power structures. Which seems like a fair level of re-
muneration for the productive labor I invested.
As an activist and flagbearer in advancing the network cultures of contemporary art,
Vickers’ attitude towards post-Internet art reflects an increasingly pronounced tension from
the 2010s that has substituted for the debate regarding online versus offline. This tension is
between the appropriation of network cultures by the mainstream art world and the
resistance of such co-option driven by network cultures and the associated social
responsibilities.
Modernist aesthetics and the art object
Apart from post-Internet art, which emphasises the fashion of network as a state of mind
in crafting an art object, another type of art practice is appropriating network cultures and
technologies, which is also fashionable in the mainstream art world. This type of practice
focuses on relatively recent network technologies and products such as social media,
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#stacktivism is a term that attempts to give form to a critical conversation & line of enquiry around infrastruc-
ture & the relationship we have to it’ (#stacktivism [no date]).
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online video games, ubiquitous computing, artificial intelligence (AI) and virtual reality by
treating them as physical materials for crafting art artefacts. James Bridle’s A State of Sin
(2018) is a case in point that employs network technology to display data live on the screen
of a few sculptures. Technologies become found objects, such as digital images, screens,
gadgets, algorithms and so on, which display ‘new aesthetics’ for their metaphorical
meanings of combining the ‘excellence’ in art and technology, as stated by the institution
that commissioned the work of Bridle (Sterling 2012; Bridle 2013; Arts at CERN 2018). Such
artwork is also often branded by art institutions using words such as future, new, cutting-
edge, innovation and creativity (Schäfer 2011a; Obrist 2016; Today Art Museum 2018; Ars
Electronica 2020). Has Ulrich Obrist (2016) explained this phenomenon:
Technological progress has accelerated to the point that the future is happening to us far
faster than we could ever have anticipated. This new world is what we call 'extreme
present', a time in which it feels impossible to maintain pace with the present, never mind to
chart the future.
The institutional mindset of catching up with technological progress to keep being
contemporary has encouraged more artworks to engage with the ‘new’ technologies in the
‘new world’ through the art object's production and, thus, to be distributed in art galleries
living in the ‘extreme present’.
This radical approach to network technologies, however, is rooted in modernist theory
regarding art autonomy. Art in the modernist theory is embedded in a self-purposive
meaning system of form, expression and representation, which are detached from social
realities and functions (Greenberg 1986; Greenberg 1995; Kant and Walker 2007). Despite the
nuanced differences between the art autonomy proposed by Immanuel Kant and his
follower Clement Greenberg, this concept is identified by Ranciere’s (2013, p.19) as
‘exist[ing] in the very difference between the common form of life that it was for those who
made the works and the object of free contemplation and free appreciation that it is for us’.
The art object is formally and aesthetically detached from social life, and this detachment
makes distinguishable the beautiful artwork and genius artists from ‘non-art’ (Agamben
1999, p.27). Everyday life is, thus, raw materials to be turned into art as content and read as
the references for aesthetic judgement.
This modernist ontology and epistemology of art have shaped art ecology in the
twentieth century, epitomised by the founding of most major modernist museums, such as
the Museum of Modern Art (1932) and Tate Gallery (1929) in the first half of the century
and impactful modern and contemporary art galleries such as Lisson Gallery (1967) and
Saatchi Gallery (1985), opened in the second half. In this ecology, the museums were the
host of art collection and distribution, which relied mainly on ‘the physical assembly of
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objects’ (Dewdney et al. 2012; Berry 2015). Museums were also the narrator and regulator of
the progression of art based on a rigid, linear, dialectical and self-referential logic of
’repudiating convention to discover the new’, which automatically excludes ‘non-art’
factors, such as mass, popular, grassroots cultures (Prior 2002; Kant and Walker 2007;
Bourdieu et al. 2013; Berry 2015). This self-repudiating logic of art history has driven the
ever-expanding museum collection; meanwhile, it has legitimised the role of the art gallery
as mine excavators seeking the next genius artist to stage, promote and sell, to monetise the
symbolic and historical value of artworks (Smith 2012, p.41; Prior 2002; Altshuler 2005).
Curators were positioned in this chain as the mediator between artworks, who fabricated
various narratives and meanings through exhibition making, by which to enhance the public
visibility of artworks and to facilitate the ‘assessment of arthistoric significance’ (Smith
2012, p.41). This self-perpetuated art ecology could hardly function without the art object as
currency and the new aesthetics emerging from cultural fields as fuel. In this sense, although
digital technologies are peripheral to the conventional sense of art and art history
(dominated by the pre-digital art medium and expression), the first thread of art practices
fits well and aptly in modernist norms and conventions by, first, advancing the ‘newness’ of
technologies in artistic creation as a progression from the ‘old’ or ‘obsolete’ medium (Schäfer
2011b) and, second, appropriating technologies into decorations in generating the ‘new’
aesthetics condensed in the art object (Sterling 2012).
Neoliberal shift of art institutions
From another perspective, this type of art practice has supported art institutions in
accomplishing their paradigmatic shift, which started from early 2000 on a global scale. Art
institutions are transforming into corporate museums, as exemplified by the launch of Tate
Modern, which ‘emerged as part of changing patterns of consumption and commodification
with the effect that the museum visitor could be understood as cultural consumer’ (Prior
2002, p.52; Dewdney et al. 2012, p.235; Rodney 2015).
This shifting identification of art institutions, from being national representatives to
becoming constituents within the neoliberal social scheme, has altered both the role of
museums and the people with whom the museums are associated (Dewdney et al. 2012).
Such a paradigmatic shift means that museums can no longer place themselves in a
sociocultural niche composed of genius artists, the art market and core visitors within a
bourgeois social circle. Neither do museums simply perform the function of national public
spaces roughly between the 1960s to 1990s, which served an abstract idea of a 'nation'
(Rodney 2015, p.48). To survive in the neoliberal funding system and the associated
competition, museums become art institutions, which have to provide ‘greater
contextualisation of objects to draw out their relevance’ to diversified groups of people as
producers, curators, consumers and visitors within ‘new media and global migrational
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networks’ (Dewdney et al., 2013, p. 235). Those people are expected by the neoliberal
government to find favourable cultural connotation in art institutions. Such need is
addressed mainly through the cultural production of narratives through exhibition making
by drawing on different webs of art objects.
Involving network technologies, new media and new aesthetics, the particular type of
artworks speaks straightforwardly to those people who do not lie in the ‘core visitors’ of
museums and find museums detached from, and irrelevant to, their wired and networked
everyday life (Dewdney et al. 2012; Chatzichristodoulou 2013; Zouli 2017; Walsh et al. 2019).
Following the logic of marketing and promoting, moreover, exhibiting those artworks
can link physical galleries with the logos of particular cultures, by which to attract the
targeted audience's attention (Yago 2017). Hence, the art world keeps expanding to reach the
multiple edges of contemporary cultures and to transmute more people into the
visitor/consumer of art. Art institutions in contemporary societies, in this sense, have
become a spectacular, perpetual form of distraction (Crary 1999), confronting the tensions
within the ever-diversifying identities that coexist in one place due to globalisation. They
reject the network as an open, multiple and non-hierarchical structure for facilitating social
change, while taking advantage of the relative network sociocultural phenomena and
technologies via cultural representation (Walsh and Dewdney 2017). Consequently, art
institutions are suspected to be instrumentalised by the neoliberal government as ‘pliant
means of social pacification’, which provides spaces for diverse self-identification and
entertainment, while refusing to help with the sociocultural issues they represent (Berry
2015, p.32).
Configuring audiences within hyper-individualism
Transforming modernist art institutions, however, find it hard to grasp the shape of
contemporary cultures which were once read as mass culture, popular culture or subculture,
and positioned as peripheral to the mainstream art culture until two decades ago (Dewdney
2020). Meanwhile, ‘the code of communication’ has changed significantly according to ‘the
electronic hypertext’, which resulted in fragmented information transmission and the
corresponding multiplicity and disjunction in people’s sense of time and space. (Castells
2010b) This state of ‘hyper individualism’ (Lipovetsky et al. 2005) demonstrated by network
cultures has made it even more slippery to target any specific group of individuals. As
explained by Dewdney (2020), hyper individualism
[…] is a state in which actors are more autonomous, but where personality is more
fragile, in which the individual is ‘opened up’, fluid and socially independent, no
longer tied to fixed bonds of social class, sexuality, race or ethnicity. However,
paradoxically the state of hyper individualism also heightens the need to belong and to
develop separate identities, a result of the paradoxical present’s double logic of
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moderation and excess, order and disorder, subjective independence and dependency.
Such a paradox conditions individuals both fluid in identity and needing self-recognition
and self-articulation, has rendered a pluralisation of the art institutional approach essential.
Cultural production and distribution are, therefore, wedged by art institutions into a blurry
multitude of identities representing the latent audiences (Dewdney et al. 2012, p.17). As
announced by the former Director of Tate Modern Chris Dercon (2012, cited in Walsh and
Dewdney, 2017), ‘[We] can think of the museum of the twenty-first century as a new kind of
mass medium’. That means the museum is unlocking a bond with singular, middle-class,
modernist art aesthetics and is reorienting their cultural production to the masses and a
different type of neoliberal market behind them (Osborne 2014).
To e xp an d th is m a rk et , art institutions must constantly assimilate new cultural symbols
and transform them into perpetuating new projects, despite the tensions between cultures
(Walsh and Dewdney 2017). Meanwhile, for each project, institutions strive to secure the
level of engagement, which makes it inevitable to regulate cultural symbols by ruling out
unsettling elements (Bishop 2012a). Consequently, there is a persistent need for art
institutions to co-opt and neutralise cultural symbols to secure universal engagement and a
marketing effect (Sholette 2011; Bishop 2012a; Berry 2015; Sholette and Lippard 2017).
This model of securitised cultural production for mass distribution is wary of the self-
reflexivity and political vitality embodied in art practices those qualities likely to be
intervening, provocative, disturbing or delimited for either the institution per se (see
institutional critique, Fluxus, performance art and some media art) or latent audiences (see
art activism or socially, politically and environmentally engaged art) (Bishop 2004; Sholette
2011; Bishop 2015). What is desirable for this model is, instead, the hyper-accessibility,
interactivity and timeliness an art practice may possess artworks are expected to speak
about contemporary cultures aptly without vexing any potential audience or consumer
(Bishop 2004). The art institutions adopting this means of cultural production and
distribution co-opted by the capitalist market and the neoliberal regime, are criticised by
some scholars in media, art and museology as the producers of a ‘culture of spectacle’,
which has minor differences fromentertainment machines’ (Prior 2003, p.213; Durrer and
Miles 2009; Chatzichristodoulou 2013). Therefore, institutional outreach to the public along
these lines, according to Sheikh (2010, p.69), ‘can never truly reach out, never really be
adequate in the sense of political subjectivity and agency without a (re)construction of the
whole praxis of exhibition-making and “instituting”’. Network cultures and their
sociopolitical capacities, then, seldom find a place to set down in conventional art
institutions.
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Curating contemporary art as a disciplinary force
The booming curation of contemporary art as a discipline and profession, has reinforced
art’s institutional regulations and value system through two means. First, the everyday job
of a curator sometimes complies with the code of conduct decided by art institutions as
employers, administrators and dominant power holders (ONeill 2008; Beech 2010). In
Sheikh’s words, an institutionalised curator is ‘a representative of the institution,
representing its discourse on art, its 'order of things, … at once dictating the right
perspective and involving them (the public) in the knowledge of the museum’ (2010, p.63).
Second, the educational curriculum of curating contemporary art, which emerged alongside
neoliberal social transformation
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, is suspected of educating future professionals as
competitive human resources in the job market defined largely by mainstream art
institutions (ONeill 2008; Heusden and Gielen 2014). Although some curating programmes
are consciously avoiding such pedagogical purposes, some lecturers, holding degrees in Art
History, for example, may not be distanced from the norms and value systems safeguarded
by the mainstream art world.
Hence, the code of conduct of curators is largely confined by ‘the strategies and reasons
of contemporary exhibition making’, which Sheikh suspects (2011, pp.182183) and cites
Frazer Ward (1995, p.74), as performing ‘the new, bourgeois subject of reason’, with a
‘fictitious identity … of self-representation and self-authorisation’. The image of a ‘curator’
today thus aligns largely with the mode of institutional, cultural production, which relies on
the web of art objects and curators as nodes for sustaining a contact surface between
institutions, artists, artworks and the public (Lind 2010; Sheikh 2010, p.64; Lind 2013;
Cranfield 2017). The task of curators, therefore, is transmitting ‘certain knowledge … from
the institution … onto the audienceas a constituent of a normalisation of institutional co-
optation, objectification and neutralisation (Sheikh 2011, p.183; Raffnsøe et al. 2014; Berry
2015; Žerovc 2015; Quaintance 2017).
The artistic approach to reduce network cultures into new technologies or topics for art
object production, therefore, fits aptly in the art-disciplinary framework sustained by
curating contemporary art. This artistic approach is not inclined to challenge the centralised
mediating role of curators with network cultures. Nor does it persuade curators and
institutions to extend their knowledge for grasping technology-related nuances. Rather, this
artistic approach shortcircuits technological complexities and decorates the art object with
sleekness, gloss and symbolically meaningful facades. Those objects are well-prepared for
immediate curatorial translation and the following distribution to exhibitions. According to
net.artist Olia Lialina’s (2007) note, media art at the end of the 2000s having become a
branch of ‘contemporary art’ and fitting into the norms of exhibition making had
3
See, in Britain, the coincidence of the Labour Party’s governmental scheme shift happening in the same histori-
cal period with the establishment of the Curating at the Royal College of Art around 1995.
13
abandoned its original messiness and riskiness rooted in digital media and network cultures.
It had to enact self-policing to be displayed in physical galleries. Particularly, galleries
suggested using a sort of unified ‘flat computer (Lialina 2007) to display media art, which
comes with only one button. You press this button and the art piece starts. Reducing a
computer to a screen, to a frame that can be fixed on the wall with one nail, marries
gallery space with advanced digital works. Wall, frame, artwork. And the art world is
in order again.
To have public visibility or to be mediated by curators, media art practices conform to the
norms of the mainstream art world, regardless of the context, subject and modality of each
practice. In this respect, it is the art practice's ‘lying flat’ and ‘comfort[ing] for all parties’, in
Lialina’s (2007) words, that has become the protagonist in the current happy marriage
between network cultures and the mainstream art world today.
Rethinking Rethinking Curating
Epistemic injustice. The assimilation of media art into the framework of the
contemporary art institution and curating is in part due to the excellent bridgework of Beryl
Graham and Sarah Cook, even though the diminution of the technical specificity of a media
artwork mentioned above is diametrically contrary to their proposal.
According to Steve Dietz, Graham and Cook's widely regarded Rethinking Curating: Art
after New Media integrates 'Turing-land (so-called new media art) and Duchampland (so-
called contemporary art), by interpreting the former according to the shared concerns of
"process, participation, and audiences"' (2010, p.295). Their book insightfully points out that
new media art is not pinned down by 'established media formats' and should be read
beyond 'the tradition of art aesthetics that is heavily based on what things look like'
(Graham and Cook 2010, p.5). This assertion can be read as a robust criticism of the
curatorial approaches mentioned in the final section.
The book also explains why the curation of new media art and network art is mostly
misunderstood and poorly implemented by the mainstream art world and dominant
institutions. According to Graham and Cook, curators' 'specialist knowledge of the
behaviours specific to new media art means that they risk’ being seen as media-specific
evangelists or even too specialist for the wide world of art' (Graham and Cook 2010, p.293).
A tension exists, in this sense, between the need to understand the new work cultures,
technologies and digital media required to understand media art, and the reluctance of the
mainstream art world to acquire such an understanding. This situation can be read as
epistemic injustice, resulting from, on the one hand, the dominant group's prevention of a
marginalised group from participating in the activity of meaning making (exhibition
making, discussing media art and network culture, etc.) (Fricker 2007), and a rejection of the
14
need to acquire knowledge about and specialisation in the marginalised group on the other
(Mason 2011). This strategic unknowing has hindered new media curators and scholars in
developing an accountable language, method and theory to analyse and critique new media
art and curating (Graham and Cook 2010, p.299).
How ‘new’ is new media art? It is probably for those reasons that Rethinking Curating aims
to render new media art and curating accessible to the mainstream art world, even though
this has resulted in some misrepresentations of media art and network cultures. For one
thing, the book reinforces the category of new media art, which cannot make sense without
assuming that there is 'newness' in media and media art. However, as Jussi Parikka (2012,
pp.144158) points out, critical media art practices are opposed to this concept because it
disguises the core value of examining media as a field of multiple temporalities and power
relationships inscribed in the media's material and cultural beings. From a media
archaeology perspective, media and technologies are '‘often not just old, or new, but always
assembled together from various pieces' (Parikka 2012, p.146), which reveal 'a time that is
gathered together, with multiple pleats' (Serres 1995, p.60). Therefore, it is necessary for art
and curatorial theory to 'step out of the short-term use value that is promoted by capitalist
media industries' and to understand the way in which some media art is, instead, 'circuit
bending and hacking' the consumerist fiction of the progression of media (Parikka 2012,
pp.147148).
Furthermore, a central argument of the book is that we should approach the curating of
new media art by understanding the 'behaviour' of each art practice; that is, 'the processes
behind the production and the distribution of the artwork function' (Graham and Cook 2010,
p.5). There is indeed the potential in this idea to unveil the capitalist rendering of networked
media as new, engaging and interactive products that belie the protocols and
governmentalities inscribed in machines and codes (Kember and Zylinska 2012).
4
However,
Graham and Cook extend the idea of 'behaviour' from the very beginning of the book into
three pairs of relationships between characteristics and curatorial considerations:
'computability', linked to 'the production of the work' and considering 'materiality and
form'; 'connectivity', linked to 'the placement of a work' and 'accessibility'; and 'interactivity',
linked to 'audience engagement with the work' (Graham and Cook 2010, p.9). These
connotations of behaviour constitute an extension of the 'industrial-led' narrative that is
criticised by Sarah Kember and Joanna Zylinska (2012, p.104). As Kember and Zylinska
point out, the narrative that 'networked computing' is ubiquitously connective and
accessible to people by offering the user 'a natural interaction' with 'dissolved electronics'
4
As in the approaches taken by Judith Butler (2015), Karen Barad (2008) and Donna Haraway (1991) towards ac-
tion, in association with the concepts of embodiment and performativity, thereby unfolding the relationship be-
tween power, norms and the opportunities for alternative hybridity.
15
functions 'to disarticulate and deny the entanglement of life and capital' (2012, p.104).
Specifically, as Kember and Zylinska (2012, p.104) point out, 'the neoliberal mode of
governance' of those technologies today has transformed the Foucauldian disciplinary force
into a 'more flexible, fluid, and … rather friendly' mode of control. This combination of
commerce and policing through networked 'machinemachine relations' is turning the
human into an 'object within the neoliberal economic and political rationality', something
that can only be challenged if we do not follow the industrial-led 'epistemological ordering
and reordering' (Kember and Zylinska 2012, pp.111112). However, Rethinking Curating has
normalised this epistemology during its translation of new media art into contemporary art.
At the end of the book, the identification of people as 'audience-users-participants' is
sanctioned, thus legitimising the neutralisation of network technologies within art
institutions through exhibition making (Graham and Cook 2010, p.303). This approach
forecloses the potential of denaturalising the interaction between people and technologies
and to reimagine the relationships proposed by Kember and Zylinska (2010, p.112). As
acutely pointed out by Claire Bishop (2004) when referring to Bourriaud,
Connecting people, creating interactive, communicative experience," he says, "What
for? If you forget the ‘what for?’ I’m afraid you’re left with simple Nokia art
producing interpersonal relations for their own sake and never addressing their
political aspects.
Bishops criticism applies also to curatorial theory and practice, that if they consider only
connectivity and interactivity without considering the political implications, curating will
server to reduce media art tosimple Nokia art’ and pass this conception to people through
programme making. Along with today's canonisation of Rethinking Curating’s
'methodological toolkits' (2010, p.13) on a global scale, many curatorial practices have failed
to present the key questions related to network technologies, regarding 'what kinds of
relations are facilitated and prohibited in the process and what consequences various
enactments of relationality will have, for “us” and “the world” at large' (Kember and
Zylinska 2012, p.112).
The problematic theory of curating new media art. The misrepresentation of curatorial theory
and practice in relation to new media art and network technologies, as demonstrated by
Rethinking Curating, is problematic. Graham and Cook claim that their bridgework between
new media art and contemporary art is performed by 'discuss[ing] and analys[ing] the
process of how things are done rather than theoretical positions'. The 'things' here referred to
are mainly media art practices and curating, rather than the interplay between human and
network technologies. As a result, instead of formulating a concrete theoretical
underpinning of networked media, the book extracts language from multiple fields
16
discretely, risking inflating those terminologies within an inconsistent analysis serving only
to art and curatorial purposes.
For example, the book mentions the performativity of computer code but does not
distinguish between scripting and performing code. The authors reach the conclusion that
'the score of a computer program is a much looser performance than the score of a
conventional musical performance' (Graham and Cook 2010, p.118), and use this claim to
support their analysis of the computability of new media art. There are two major problems
with this line of reasoning. First, the conclusion is shaky, because code does to a large extent
what it says with little improvisation, and can hardly go 'looser'; rather, it is suspected of
performing too strictly and seamlessly (Galloway 2004; Chun 2016a). Second, the analysis
ignores the ways in which code performs a programmer’s inscription (so that codes are not
objective or neutral) (Geoff Cox and Alex McLean 2012), the way in which programming
languages confines how people understand digital things (mainly as objects, commands and
controls) (Fuller and Goffey 2014), and the way in which programming as an action is
determined and normalised by computational technology and industry (Vismann 2013). The
negligence makes the appropriation of the concept the performativity of code in analysing the
‘computability’ of new media art implausible and misleading. Given the epistemic injustice
highlighted at the beginning of this section, the neutralisation and misrepresentation of
curatorial theories and practices, as exemplified by Rethinking Curating, have prevented
many people from understanding network technologies and media art (Chatzichristodoulou
2013).
In the field of curatorial theory, there is only a small amount of research grounded in the
intersection of inquiries into art, media and communication studies, and science and
technology studies. Within this research, little has achieved an articulation of network
technologies and cultures taking social and political responsibilities as preconditions. This
gap has resulted in a status quo that curating media art is mostly an isolated, self-referential
field with distinctive understandings of some signifiers and concepts. This reinforces the
problem of developing the specialities of curating media art, which is instrumentalised by
the mainstream art world, while also peripheral to a larger field of academic exchange
considering science, technology and media due to its self-interested objectives and self-
referential meaning system.
Technology for global art institutions, what is the purpose?
If we zoom out looking at art and curatorial practices, we will find that the
interpretation of network technologies by art institutions is conspicuous picture today. A
series of surveys on digital culture commissioned by the Arts Council England shows that
(MTM London 2019, pp.3031), compared to 2013, art institutions and practitioners are more
likely to associate digital technologies with the financial and administrative functions of
17
'selling tickets online, product sales and donations and fundraising' instead of 'distribution
and exhibition' or 'creation' (MTM London 2019, p.11). From the perspective of knowledge
distribution, similarly, smaller proportion of staff in UK art institutions is 'knowledgeable
about digital technologies', and less priority is located in 'developing new digital ideas' or
the distribution of 'digital expertise' ––digital expertise is 'concentrated more on the
specialist parts, i.e. marketing' (MTM London 2019, p.11).
5
This survey indicates that to date,
most art institutions are reading technologies as technocratic managerial skills and
marketing tools peripheral to the consideration of both art and curating, and the discussion
of contemporary cultures and societies (Dewdney et al. 2012).
Moreover, the convenience of social media platforms after Web 2.0 that is, the
participatory social web and the design of its framework aims at encouraging user-
generated content. Thus, it has inspired numerous online platforms during the past two
decades (Berners-Lee et al. 2000) and minimised the threshold for users to share and
exchange contents online, ranging from image posting, live streaming to diverse forms of
advertising and promoting. Along with the popularity of social media and e-commerce, art
institutions and practitioners are more likely to associate network technologies with
YouTube, Facebook, Instagram and online shops, rather than with either art programme
making, or the political and social issues behind the technologies (Chatzichristodoulou 2013;
Sluis 2016; MTM London 2019).
These phenomena are not special to British art institutions but represent largely a global
art scene today. During the COVID-19, rarely can we find an institution that is apt in
developing art programmes based on the internet by situating in the network cultures.
Instead, numerous institutions have adopted email-based information distribution as ‘online
curating’; analogue art shows, video-based exhibition guide tour are also bourgeoning
globally (Connor 2020). Art media, furthermore, hardly elaborate on distinguishing the idea
of online exhibition hosting digitally situated art practices, from Google Arts & Cultures,
and the art galleries’ e-commerce that shows artworkspictures on online platforms
(Carrigan 2020; The Art Newspaper, China 2020).
In China, this general disinterest in critically respond to network technologies and
cultures as contemporary cultures is juxtaposed with a radical hybridity between art
institutions and technology companies. Chinese dominant institutions, such as Ullence
Contemporary Art (Beijing), are progressing in collaboration with social media platforms to
distribute live performances, while also to sell products through live streaming during the
COVID19 outbreak (Ullens Centre of Contemporary Art 2020). In terms of long-term
programmes, Today Art Museum, another dominant art institution based in Beijing, has
been running the Future Gallery for five years and has a long-term programme named
5
The survey had 891 respondents in 2013 and 939 in 2019.
18
‘Future of Today’. Within this programme, a spectacular, immersive net media art exhibition
was curated by Juehiu Wu in 2018 sponsored by Xiaomi (a technology company advancing
e-commerce) (Today Art Museum 2018). Meanwhile, an exhibition curated by Iris Long
unpacked the issues raised by artificial intelligence aiming at exploring ‘the future of art
and aesthetics of technology and the imagination of the new human in intelligent
conversation with computational AI’, according to Peng Gao, director of the museum (Peng
and Sina Collection 2019).
6
It appears that in current Chinese art field, the futuristic,
technological, progressivist spirit is intertwining with the institutions’ appetite in
collaboration with technology companies for both commercial and academic reasons (Qin
2004a; Schäfer 2011b; Greenspan 2014; Keane et al. 2016).
The Central Academy of Fine Art (CAFA) in Beijing, specifically, established the Center
for Art and Technology in 2017 which has extended the college’s long-term collaboration
with tech companies such as Google, Baidu and Jingdong (a major Chinese e-commerce
company) (Zikang 2018). According to Zikang Zhang (2019),
7
director of the CAFA Art
Museum, the Center for Art and Technology combines the function of art education and art
institution, which 'progressed many unexpected topics for academic research and the art
field. We look forward to art and technology bringing us future novelty'.
8
Such novelty
includes the unlimited possibilities in the intelligent and globalised construction of the
future museum’.
9
This particular programme, according to CAFA, is also collaborating with
the Royal College of Art and more international art colleges and institutions, aiming at
‘progressing the establishment of new academic discourses’ (Zikang 2019). In this sense, the
optimistic, progressivist and futuristic Chinese dream that is expected to forge a positive
international image for China, and to lead the national and global future (Keane 2009;
Greenspan 2014), seems to function well to a certain level. The composition of this futuristic
picture of art probably consists of the enterprise culture or naïve faith in technology more
than the critical reflection and revision of cultures and technologies proposed by Parikka,
Kember and Zylinska (Greenspan 2014; Zikang 2019).
Besides, Michael Keane (2009) identifies that the creative industry in China is
remarkable, as it includes not only the ‘arts’, ‘publishing’ and ‘cultural exhibition’, but also
‘cultural research and community cultural organisation’(Keane 2009, p.436). This sweeping
creative industry is buttressed by ‘ideology’, ‘managed by the state to advance its "soft
power" internationally' while also to reflect ‘national sovereignty’ and ‘enhance(s) social
6
未来艺术和科技美学,新新人类与电脑 AI 智能对话的畅想
7
Zikang Zhang was the former director of Today Art Museum (Beijing) and the deputy director of the National
Art Museum of China.
8
Translated by the author. The original Chinese text states: ‘中央美术学院美术馆与京东方在艺术与科技的推动上
做出了很多意想不到的课题,在艺术界形成了话题,我们期待艺术与科技的发展给我们带来的未来的新奇’.
9
Translated by the author. The original Chinese text says, ‘未来美术馆的智能化全球化建设提供无限的可能’.
19
harmony’ within the country (Keane 2009, pp.436, 438). The ideological guidance of Chinese
industries, furthermore, is not confined to the cultural sector but draws on a combination of
‘cultural development (wenhua jianshe), innovation (chuangxin) and creativity (chuangyi)’ as
the cultural enterprises which embody both the centralised ideology of managing the people
and the entrepreneurial logic of competition, profit and survival. As pointed out by Qin
Shao (Qin 2004b) in analysing the 2010 World Expo in Shanghai, the power of technology
and the cultural appetite for digital spectacles are interlocked, which should be read as
alignment with modernist enlightenment and branding purposes to gain influential power
in the global competition. This approach inhibits the potential of network cultures as
alternatives to modernism, hierarchy and the capitalist market (Ronfeldt 1996; Varnelis
2008). Meanwhile, British art institutions are not too far away from this mode of
collaboration and hybridisation. According to the ‘2020 Working Internationally
Conference: Soft Power in Turbulent Timesheld by the UK committee of the International
Council of Museums, cultural institutions are encouraged by the government, to actively
engage’ with British technology and innovation which is currently ‘lacklustre’, and ‘legged
behind’ the global competition (MacDonald 2019; ICOM UK 2020). The aim is to use cultural
production to promote the international image of Britain as a technologically advanced
nation possessing ‘digital soft power’ (ICOM UK 2020).
In this line, the collaboration between Chinese, British and more international art
colleges in establishing the future new discourses uncovers some underrepresented
questions such as, what is the aim of the establishing new discourses? To what extent do
British and Chinese art institutions and education share the vision of future art practices
related to technologies? Lastly, how can we understand the relationship between this vision
in contemporary art and the enterprise culture, techno-politics, and state power and the
associated ideological and social control? This investigation is of critical value for
understanding the knowledge background and value system of the art practitioners in the
new future in both Britain and China. It is also crucial for identifying and interpreting the
standpoints of the mega art institutions which are involving increasingly in the interplay
between contemporary art and network cultures and technologies.
3. Intermedia and situationist approaches in the network society
Intermedia art: An artistic approach to science and technology studies?
The mainstream art world to date has primarily focused on the network society as a
material provider of art object production, assuming the display of up-to-date technological
objects could automatically be equated with contemporary cultural representation (Lialina
2007; Dewdney et al. 2012; Sterling 2012; Chatzichristodoulou 2013). Besides, network
cultures are widely seen as ideologies or metaphors (i.e. participation, inclusion and
20
engagement) used by artistic, symbolic representation, as well as a model of networked
distribution adopted by an institution’s marketing and branding strategies
(Chatzichristodoulou 2013; Walsh et al. 2019, pp.1213). Such a shift has seemingly brought
about considerable benefits (i.e. an enlarged art market, diversified art programmes, more
project-based artistic working opportunities and increased art audiences) to the art ecology.
Accordingly, there has been relatively less attempt to initiate and magnify the discussion and
debates concerning the role of art and technologies situated in the network society today
from critical perspectives or with constructive impacts.
There are, however, a consistent group of notable exceptions. Informed by Fluxus’s
media experiment in the 1970s, some contemporary art practices focus on leaking from art
into life instead of the opposite (Higgins 2002, p.63). Dick Higgins’s concept of ‘intermedia’
has fuelled the contemporary practices in kind, experimenting with the 'real objects and
everyday life commented and problematised rather than represented (unlike Pop)'. The
emphasis is on the ’new means of perception’ aligning with not ‘fixities of medium
specificity’, but what (could) existsbetween media’ (Higgins 1978, p.8), as well as in the
‘interrelated perceptual field … between actions, language, objects and sounds’ (Stiles 1993,
p.65). In particular, intermedia artistic experimentations, as identified by Reinhard Braun
(2005, p.74), have been exploring media as ‘ensembles of cultural techniques whose elements
also stem from the fields of technology, science, art, and politics’. Such exploration should be
understood as ‘intervention into and within media-based perception’. By taking media as
both the field and method, interventionist practices aim to embed wholly in ‘economic
issues and political structures’, with little attempt to crystallise those issues through static
artistic representation (Braun 2005, p.12; Braun 2005).
Olia Lialina and Dragan Espenschied’s collaborative work Summer (2013) and Hosted
(2020) are examples along these lines. Both works are embedded in the internet
technologically and culturally. Embodying the intention of unveiling ‘the codes and
protocols of (browser interface) developers’, the two works are displayed in the form of the
moving image, each frame of which is hosted by a single Uniform Source Locator (URL), so
a person can only watch the moving image if accepting the constant change of websites
(Lialina and Edwards 2020). This results in an unstable frame-skip visual effect depending
on the broadband speed. Lialina’s figure appears in each frame, swinging in Summer and
swimming in Hosted. The shifting URL in the location bar and Lialina’s stop-motion
movements constantly remind us of the speed and temporality of the internet. Boris Groys’s
(2016) metaphoric ‘flow’ of data and information, and the renounced claim of the internet as
‘the thingless medium’, prove to be a misrepresentation. The two works render palpable the
association between the ‘digital’ browser’s location bar, the physicalhosts of websites and
the broadband, as holistic, materialised, unstable infrastructure rather than invisible, virtual
and automatic matters. The aim is to trigger discussions about the issues of distribution,
21
ownership, spatiality and temporality of websites and the ontology of moving images
(Lialina and Edwards 2020).
Network technologies are be approached by the situated art practices as the default of
contemporary cultures and societies, whose affordance lies in vital mediation processes
(Braun 2005; Kember and Zylinska 2012). The idea of approaching media politically to test
social, cultural and economic mediation can be traced back at least to Marcel Duchamp’s
idea of the ‘art coefficient’ as ‘the mental realm of the viewer/participants or in the shared
cognitive space’ (Smith 2005, p.130). However, Fluxus pushed the understanding of the
communication process to an edge, so the production and distribution of artworks can no
longer be separated and owned by artists and museums, respectively (Paik 1978). This
meant that, in following up the Dadaist challenge to artistic skill and labour as the value of
art, Fluxus has subverted the ownership mechanism in art ecology by underscoring the
collective dynamics of art practices interlocked with and embedded in network media
(Molesworth 2003). Furthermore, by stretching the Duchampian challenge to authorship
once relying on artistic appropriation inseparable from the singular artistic creation or the
creator’s signature as a proof of authenticity Fluxus formulateda transactional space’ for
temporal, collaborative interventions into everyday situations (Saper 2001; Smith 2005,
p.131). In this way, the figure of the singular genius artistic creator is dismantled, and
dynamic, socially responsible collectives of situationist and interventionists have emerged.
One recent example is Rob Myers’s Balloon Dog (2012), hosted by Furtherfield on
Wikipedia, which offers a digit al model taking the shape of Koons’s pricy series of Balloon
Dog (1994 ) which is, however, openly accessible, downloadable, modifiable and 3D-
printable (Myers and Frost 2012). The free and open Source of the internet has presented
opportunities to nullify the uniqueness and authorship of the artwork, to deconstruct the
financial value of the art production and to resuscitate the sociality in the art practice
(Hancock 2012; P2P Foundation contributors 2012). The affordance of the art practice in
network society, in this way, is transformed from market-oriented production, promotion
and exchange to disruptive collective enactments intending to overturn those norms and
their value system.
Situationist organisation: Enfolding art into the network society
Approaches in the last century. The interventionist approach to art in the network society
is shaped considerably by Situationist International in the second half of the twentieth
century. Situation here refers to 'moments of life concretely and deliberately constructed
through the organised collection of a unitary environment and of a play on events'
(Bazzichelli and Kerckhove 2008, p.48). The principle, according to Peter Wollen (1989, p.68),
was to produce settings for constructing encounters and lived moments grounded in and
transforming the conditions of everyday life. Specifically, the interventionist approaches of
22
network cultures today share with Situationist International the tactics to collectively
unsettle the capitalist, hierarchical and closely regulated society (Sholette 2011, pp.34, 107
108; Garrett 2014; Moss 2019). The idea of collectivity is crucial. The enactment of collective
meaning and situation construction, as McKenzie Wark (2011, pp.3739) underscores, is the
basis of bypassing conscious individual intension in the interest of collective imagination’,
and, more importantly, of subverting the ownershipof both propertiesand signwedged
to capitalism.
Situationist International embraced the concept of generosity as counter-capitalism. It
redistributed values through offering gifts or free exchanges with the hope that ‘it will alter
the “ideological DNA” of future recipients’ and will expand in a ‘viral’ pattern. (Sholette
2011, p.108; Plant 2002; McDonough 2002). The early World Wide Web, promising to offer a
free, open, democratic environment for communication and exchange, became a major place
to enact the situationist free-gift tactic at the end of last century (Berners-Lee et al. 2000;
Lialina 2007; Lialina and Espenschied 2009; Garrett 2014). For instance, the Tactical Media
advanced by Geert Lovink and David Garcia (1997) adopted multiple media and forms of
content, aiming at disturbing ever-solidifying capitalist, consumerist cultures:
The desire and capability to combine and remix media created a continuous supply of
mutants and hybrids. To cross borders, connecting and re-wiring a variety of disciplines
and always taking full advantage of the free spaces in the media that are continually
appearing because of the pace of technological change and regulatory uncertainty.
Taking advantage of the early ‘free’ feature of the internet, Lovink, Garcia and more
artists, scholars and activists produced extensive work, ranging from net.art, video shows,
games and texts as free gifts dispersed online. The aim inspired by Michel De Certeau’s
The Practice of Every Life (1988) was to formulate ‘a class of producers’, who used the
internet and the associated products, yet were ‘uniquely aware of’ the tactical chances of
rebellion and reversal embodied in those everyday acts of usage or consumption (Garcia
and Lovink 1997). The effect of Tactical Media was phenomenal, since it achieved to build
up a global community of people who were mutual supporting to identify means of
intervention along with the development of the internet. Numerous artist collectives and
activist communities were facilitated by Tactical Media, including 0100101110101101.org,
I/O/D and Critical Art Ensemble.
Changes in the twenty-first century. Today, some organisations still practise the similar
situationist idea of offering free gifts in exchange for two potential outcomes: a shift in
people’s consciousness, and an expansion of communities sharing similar political visions.
The Institute of Network Cultures in Amsterdam initiated by Geert Lovink and Furtherfield
by Ruth Catlow and Marc Garret (which commissioned Myers’s Balloon Dog) are cast in
23
similar mould. Both organisations strive to overturn the intertwining neoliberal enterprise
culture and network technologies by facilitating a free, open, collaborative and decentralised
way of working and creating. The context in which the two organisations are situated,
however, significantly differed from Tacit Media's two decades ago.
A predominant change during the past two decades is that people were encouraged to
explore and construct the internet for autonomous, empowered uses. Today, people are
more likely to be consumers entertained by online contents who possess less right and
technical abilities to alter the settings and protocols of the internet (Galloway 2004; Lialina
and Espenschied 2009). Abundant research has demonstrated that users are unpaid labour
in ‘the information society’, exploited by big tech companies such as Facebook, Amazon and
Google (Fuchs 2014, p.258; Castells 2010c; Srnicek and De Sutter 2017; Lovink 2019). The
users, by consuming services and products, are automatically contributing attention, social
influence and data to companies’ growing profit and power. This mode of exploitation and
control is reported by the research in multiple disciplines ranging from media and
communication studies (Kember and Zylinska 2012), software studies (Chun 2016b; Fuller
2017), platform studies (Bogost and Montfort 2009; Srnicek and De Sutter 2017), sociology
(Plantin et al. 2018; Vallas and Schor 2020), political and economic studies (Fuchs 2014;
Kenney and Zysman 2016; Mulcahy 2017; Zuboff 2018) and more, located in the intersection
between those areas (Castells 2010c; Han 2017).
In the meantime, along with the expanding domination of the big tech companies’
joining forces with governmental regulation, the power of users to overturn the situation is
increasingly limited (Castells 2010a; Fuller 2017; Eubanks 2017; Zuboff 2018). This is partly
due to the substantial use value provided by the tech companies, ranging from social
networking infrastructure to channels for ecommerce and online advertisement, which
makes consumption harder to avoid (Fuchs 2014; Beech 2019; Lovink 2019). Besides, the
capacity to develop and control the products of digital, network technologies for instance,
browsers, platforms, search engines and their information filter algorithms is unequally
distributed. As Christian Fuchs (2014) points out, this power is centralised in those
possessing technical skills, a collaboration network and, equally importantly, time to
transmute those advantages into effective action. Especially in today’s societies operating
based on technocracy and bureaucracy, the gauge between users and developers is deeper
some people do not see particular technical skills and technological knowledge as relevant
to their professional life and, therefore, not as valuable to acquire (Fuchs 2014; MTM London
2019, pp.3843).
This is an age that everyone has become cultural producers on social media. In this line,
art institutions have become what Fuchs (2014, p. 8596) calls the ‘audience commodity’ as
an extension of Dallas Smythe’s (1984, 1994) audience commodity theory. That is, the
audience’ consists of workers and buyers who devote attention, unpaid labour and social
24
resources to promoting tech companies, especially flagships in the network technologies and
Internet cultures (Jenkins 2008; Chatzichristodoulou 2013; Sluis 2016; Lovink and Rossiter
2018; Beech 2019, p.95). Artists, simultaneously, have become the major creative influencers’
in a milieu of user generated content. They are those who produce unique art objects for
institutions to attract the audiencessnapshots (Sluis 2016); they also help with promoting
events on social media always with an institutions geolocation tag (Yago 2018); moreover,
they are assumed to volunteer the artworks digital images to the art institutionswebsites
for branding purpose (Dewdney et al. 2012). A series of value-addingactivities in art is
enacted on social media (Yago 2017). It is ironic, however, that those art agencies are self-
identifying as the ones who employ the trick of offering free content, engagement and
platform to commodify art audiences as free promoters online; but meanwhile, they are the
exploited audience commodity for the big tech companies. Art has, therefore, becomes
essentially a non-stop streaming of user-generated content fuelling the power of both art
institutions and the big tech companies (Yago 2017).
Situationists’ nihilism? Confronting a mixture of information overload, profuse ‘free’
products and centralised corporate/institutional domination today, the situationist
approach to generosity as a social intervention tacit seems invalid. As Lovink (2019, pp.149
150) puts it, situationist ‘gifts’, crafted through twisting and turning contemporary culture
and then reproducing it within the digital network, appear to have little difference from
what network cultures are offering today. There is hardly a 'shock' effect in this tactic
anymore, when most objects (i.e. images, sounds, videos and codes) online are
reproductions; many of them are for free (Lovink 2019). Moreover, since ‘free’ things online
are increasingly the bate of the tech companies to harvest more data, the situationist
enthusiasm and generosity can become even suspicious for those who do not know the
background and standpoint of the practitioners. Lovink calls this dilemma platform nihilism
in ‘a post-deconstructivist period’ when people are:
[…] tired because we’re wired. Everything is already a montage, with endless layers of
data, software, content, form and meaning stacked on top of each other. … Today, it (a
destruction of coherence) is the new normal.
The new normal of shock, exhaustion and nihilism immanent in the contemporary everyday
life recalls Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine (2008), which identifies how governments and
corporations profit from disasters and the consequent mass shock. However, unlike the
large-scale disasters Klein focuses on, such as economic crises and wars, Lovink’s fatigue
and disempowerment can be attributed more to the neoliberal institutionalisation of micro-
control inscribed in the norms set up by technology companies, art institutions and the
capitalist society in general (Ronfeldt 1996; Berry 2015; Han and Butler 2015; Han 2017). In
25
this sense, the once tactical interventions of creating, uploading and remixing are drawn on
by neoliberal governmentality as ‘endless generation of commodities’, and as fulfilment of
‘the desire for pure intensity’ as identified by Jean-François Lyotard (Plant 2002, p.142;
Lyotard 2004).
Situationists’ contemporary approaches. While the situationist free-gift tactic is recuperated
and, therefore, politically enervated to a large extent, its organisational approach to construct
multiple, diverse, temporal situations to disturb the existing social norms is extended today.
Specifically, some art practitioners have recognised the fundamental incongruency in
organisational structure, between the capitalist hierarchical institution and the ‘heterarchic’
or ‘panarchic’ collaborative network motivated by social purposes, such as addressing social
injustice and environmental problems (Ronfeldt 1996; Scrimgeour and Vickers 2016).
Confronting this disjunction, those practitioners are aware that unless the organisational
infrastructure is altered, there can be little effective way to realise the situationist aim of
altering the capitalist society (Scrimgeour and Vickers 2016; Furtherfield 2020a). The
organisation, as such, includes Furtherfield, V2 Institute for Unstable Media in Rotterdam,
Eyebeam in Brooklyn and, with an ambiguous gesture, the Chronus Art Center in Shanghai.
Those relatively small-scale organisations have become the place for culturing the networks
of technologically, socially and politically engaged practitioners and agencies. As epitomised
by Furtherfield’s (2020a) manifesto:
We a re a c om mu n it y o f ra d ic al fr i en d s wh o d e ve lo p c o ll a bo ra t iv e -imaginative
fieldwork together and enable others to do the same.
Down with the exclusive commercial art world and big tech companies that
control and kill our cultures.
We a re ab o ut o p en n es s a nd ou t re ac h . We va l ue : p ol y ph on y, p o li ti c s a nd pl ay ;
misfits and mayhem; inquisitive and imaginative kind.
We w a nt d i sr u pt io n , d em oc r ac y, d ec e nt r al is a ti o n, di st r ib u ti o n an d d i ve rsity across
art and technology now!
The Furtherfield manifesto goes beyond the excitement and enthusiasm manifested in
tactical media and is distinguishable from the frustration expressed by Lovink’s Sad by
Design (2019). Alongside radical positionality, the organisation is committed to social
reconstruction guided by more systematic strategies. Its vision is not limited by the past or
present but is looking at the near and even far future regarding the questions of what type of
world we want to live in and how to shape the world accordingly. This vision opposes
CAFA and Today Art Museum’s futuristic optimism, bonding either with the modernist art
legacy bounded with aesthetics, uniqueness and ownership, or ‘corporate and capitalist
interests’ (Garrett et al. 2018).
26
According to Garett (2017), Furtherfield is positioned opposite to the proprietary
system, which maximises consumption in fulfilling ‘[the] establishment of ever more
efficient and productive systems of growth [that] are owned by fewer, more centralised
agents’. Instead, it embraces a network organisation of 'democracy, decentralisation,
distribution and diversity', aiming at disrupting and subverting the hierarchical institution
and the profit-oriented market which according to David Ronfeldt’s widely hailed Tr i be s ,
Institutions, Markets, Networks: A Framework About Societal Evolution (1996) are the features
and strengths of the network organisation in contemporary societies.
The network organisation, despite proliferation until recent times and often bounded
with Internet technologies such as blockchain and open software, is not a product of the
internet. Ronfeldt traces it back to the 1960s, when social movements in the United States
promoted the organisational structure of ‘segmented, polycentric, ideologically integrated
networks’ (SPIN), which is defined by John Arquilla et al., (2001) as
Segmentary: Composed of many diverse groups, which grow and die, divide and fuse,
proliferate and contract.
Polycentric: Having multiple, often temporary, and sometimes competing leaders or
centers of influence.
Networked: Forming a loose, reticulate, integrated network with multiple linkages
through travelers, overlapping membership, joint activities, common reading matter,
and shared ideals and opponents.
The rise of this SPIN organisational model overlaps with Situationist International in terms
of the historical period, social background and the tactic of enacting temporal, diverse and
decentralised movements for social change (Arquilla et al. 2001). Such a network mode of
organisation was employed largely by activism in the 1960s, but its effectiveness at eroding
institutions and casting social transformation was considerably enhanced by the information
technology of the past two decades (Ronfeldt 1996, p.18). As demonstrated by Arab Spring
(20102012), the Hong Kong protests (2020), the COVID19 Chinese whistleblower online
movement (2020) and more, network technologies are increasingly an infrastructure
coordinating digital communication and collectively embodied enactment. This
infrastructure facilitates the organisation of social change with low financial cost, broad
connection and rapid social effects (Castells 2012; Tufekci 2017; Della Ratta 2018).
There is, so far, scant research analysing the art organisational strategy of Furtherfield
and more organisation by superimposing it with situationist tactics and the evidential
potential of network cultures in fermenting social change. A chart below has mapped briefly
a few typical ways of how art is situated in this mode of organisation by employing specific
tactics with particular aims. Examples and the associated literature are also aligned with the
tactics.
27
28
29
Although many collective art practices are interlacing situationist approach with
network cultures and social purposes from various perspectives, their organisational
frameworks and their potential crossbreeds are short of study. This presents two important
questions. First, to what extent does each organisational framework works in the
contemporary art field? Second, what is the role of, or is there any value of, art practices for
these organisational frameworks?
A long-term, organisational vision, however, is vital to the situationist interventions.
Especially, to understand and learn from the continuity of those interventions as a spectrum
is important. As identified by Vickers, it can be seen as little failure in the situationist
approach informed by the network cultures from the late twentieth century until now.
Instead, there have been rather diverse explorations as ‘iterative processes’, aiming at
identifying and safeguarding value that cannot be compromised (Catlow and Garrett 2009;
Biggs et al. 2012; Archey et al. 2014; Garrett 2014; Scrimgeour and Vickers 2016). For
example, many people downplay post-internet art as an ‘almost completely apolitical and a-
critical’ articulation of ‘art authored, written about and displayed by members of a culturally
and economically homogeneous community that is predominantly Western, middle and
upper-middle class’ (Quaintance 2015). In responses to the disapproval of the post-internet,
Vickers (2016) says:
I wouldn't entirely disagree, but there was an opportunity. The big card that post-
Internet had to play was making the gallery space just another node in a network,
right? And it did that for two or three years, and then it stopped and decided to make
the gallery the primary site again.
Confronting the discrepancy between the mainstream art world and the organisations
convinced of a different set of values, ontology and epistemology of art, Vickers prefers to
think from an ecological perspective, and what is currently exploring is
[…] how we reached the idea that the scale in which we should consider operating is
not that of a utopian project; it is that of a fire extinguisher. If you can create a safe
space in which individuals can hold on to those kinds of values and that way of
articulating themselves and still work towards reshaping the world, whilst also putting
out the fire, then super great …
The intersection between contemporary art and network cultures, in this sense, is a section
of contemporary society that owns most of its problems and the potential means to address
particular issues without tearing down societies. What lies behind those practices is a series
of micro-interventions or disruptions between two constellations of standpoints, and the
knowledge backgrounds and value systems buttressing the two. The word constellations here
30
highlights the complex, nuanced but crucial differences among network organisations,
hegemonic institutions and the large area of intersections between the two. The differences
are unneglectable as their decisive role in the process and result of the negotiation.
Moreover, the distinctions are related to the time, territories, identities and limitations, or in
Haraways’s (1988) word, the positionings of each case. This disparity shapes the power
dynamics and tensions in contemporary art. Identifying the nuance differences is a
prerequisite for mapping the webs of differential positioningsand, therefore, is decisive to
the formulation of solidarity and commons, for either the power-seeking institution, profit-
oriented market or network organisation for a social change.
Little research, however, has unfolded the complex standpoints and their relationships
in the contemporary art field informed by network cultures. While Claire Bishop’s research
offers a groundwork to analyse the relationship and tensions in the contemporary art field
(Bishop 2004; Bishop 2012a), it offers little knowledge about network cultures and
technologies (Bishop 2012b; Bishop 2015). The collection of writings on business and
disruption in contemporary art by the DATA browser offers insights regarding the intricate
relationships between market, business and artistic disruption (Bazzichelli and Cox 2013).
Seldom, though, do those writings discuss what network cultures and technologies mean to
the disruption of business in art. This gap in research is partly filled by Tatiana Bazzichelli
(2013) through her research of networked disruption intersecting art, hacktivism and the
business of social networking; as well as the anthology State Machines (2019), edited by Marc
Garrett and his colleagues, exploring the positions of cultural production ‘beyond the limits
of the neoliberal and extreme nationalist logics that shape the world around us’.
Nevertheless, there remains a noticeable gap in formulating a persuasive argument in
this direction based on non-essentialist approaches to interpret the mainstream art world
and situationist, interventionist networked organisations. Therefore, it remains unclear why
more people should consider practising art in alternative paths and what knowledge and
skills those people possess to practically explore those alternatives. Those issues are of
significant value today, especially in the fields of curatorial study, art institutional
administration and art education, wherein the unexamined norms are profuse in curating
new media art, online curating, and art and technology.
In the field of technology-inspired curatorial research, Josia Krysa’s research in software
curating and the financial aspect of contemporary art are informed by algorithms and
software programming, sometimes to facilitate the art market (Krysa 2008; Krysa 2011b;
Krysa 2011a). Thus, research seems to align with the purpose of open art platform
construction, which exists in parallel with the socially responsible negotiation, intervention
and reconstruction proposed by Garrett, Catlow, Vickers and Bazzichalli. The research in art
platform and engagement by Olga Goriunova (2012; 2016) was concerned about networked
organisational methods. However, it appears to be the digitisation of current museums as
31
both a medium for cultural production administration and a platform for aesthetics-centred
project making and mass distribution.
All of the scholars and research mentioned above, furthermore, focus predominantly on
the so-called Western art world and overlook the potential to configure the field, problems
and potentials from a transnational perspective. This centralised research pattern risks
overlooking the potential of identifying dynamic commonalities beyond the fictional borders
wedged between nations and ethnicities (Gielen 2015, pp.186196; Hlavajova and Hoskote
2015; Hlavajova and Sheikh 2016; Hui 2018).
Summary and Impetus for Research Programme
The thesis has unpacked the shifts and tensions in the interplay between network
technologies and cultures in contemporary art. Artistic and organisational approaches to
networks coexist in the art ecology, and the disparities between them were analysed in the
thesis by comparing their underpinning epistemic backgrounds and value systems. A few
different perspectives and their relationships have been interpreted by synthesis with macro
sociocultural concepts such as modernism, institutionalisation, neoliberalism, the creative
industry, globalisation and techno-politics. In this way, the reasons, problems, consequences
and significance of several existing artistic approaches, curatorial methods and
organisational structures have been illustrated. However, due to the gaps in the existing
research, this thesis has not adequately investigated the nuanced but crucial differences
between each standpoint, or the tactics, organisational structures and curatorial approaches
each standpoint employs to achieve its specific objectives. The potential role of
contemporary art, as well as curatorial theories and practices, is thus illustrated but not fully
unpacked.
To da y, du r in g t he C OV ID -19 crisis, more people are accepting network cultures and
technologies as crucial constituents of contemporary society. The power of networks is
demonstrated when thoughts are shared on the Internet and turn immediately into
collective actions, as demonstrated by the 5G coronavirus conspiracy and the resultant arson
attacks; when people see online expressions as social intervention as shown by American
and British medical staff; and when the issues of control, safety, health, trust and caring are
fomented, rather than merely reported on, through the Internet, as demonstrated by people's
rejection of contact-tracing systems. In the art sector, however, much debate is focused on the
forms, aesthetics and economic effects of network cultures. As this thesis has shown, it is
important to regard contemporary art not only in terms of art practices or curatorial
techniques but also meaning making, cultural production and organised work and
institutions situated in the network society.
The research therefore proposes a non-essentialist reading of the multiple standpoints
and their relationships, existing in the intersection between contemporary art and network
32
cultures and technologies, with two primary objectives. The first is to identify the
standpoints and problems in the field without trying to neutralise curatorial theories and
practices, art organisational practices or network cultures and technologies. The second is to
explore the implications of those standpoints and problems for the network society, instead
of confining the discussion to the art world or producing a value-free catalogue of existing
approaches.
Curatorial practices and theories are typically explored in response to the issues of
representation, presentation, documentation and historicisation. Network cultures and
technologies, by contrast, are largely considered in curatorial research as techniques for
showing artworks and hosting discussions online. As a consequence, very little is known
about the extent to which curatorial theory and practice have social and political
implications for the interplay between contemporary art and the network society. Thus,
another important aim of the thesis was to explore the impacts of curatorial practices and
theories on the art ecology, confronting the challenges and changes brought about by
network cultures and technologies. Exploring the correlates of political standpoints and
value systems without claiming neutrality or objectivity or shunning value-laden
interpretations represents an important first step in the present line of inquiry. However,
the refusal to place research comfortably in the centre of a field's consensus requires a
considerable level of self-reflexivity during the research process (Antony 1993; Alvesson
2017), which is not yet realised in either this thesis or the existing research in the field. Self-
reflexivity should prevent the value-laden character of the research from foreclosing spaces
for debate and multiple interpretations (Berger 2015). This approach, although scarce in the
curatorial research related to network cultures, has long been discussed and practised in
feminism, science and technology studies and the social sciences. Donna Haraway's (1988)
concept of situated knowledge and Sandra Harding's (1993) strong objectivity are powerful
cases in point. Thus, the research proposes to draw upon those sources and associate them
with fieldwork, attempting to explore a way of doing a curatorial study by positioning
standpoints in 'power-sensitive' situations and conversations (Haraway 1988). The aim is to
test the existing values and boundaries of practising, organising and instituting
contemporary art in the network society.
33
List of Figure
1. The diagram drew by Ruth Catlow page 4
List of Tables
1. The tactics of the contemporary situationist art practices page 27
2. The tactics of the contemporary situationist art practices (Continued) page 28
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