by Lucy Cantwell , Spring 2012
Control of information has always determined power and financial gain, but the technological advances of the modern age created unprecedented potential for such by virtue of the volume of information at hand. We produce untold streams of it constantly—status updates, blog posts and bank transactions, and because of the benefits of control, the companies and platforms that facilitate this production have as much stake in protecting that information as we do. This forces the concerned into a position of vigilance—ideals get lost when money is at the forefront. Although there is increasing evidence that in the day-to-day lives of our families and neighbors, and not in the least ourselves, we attempt to be mindful of the torrents we produce, it makes sense that art, the most utopian of social commentary, would have anticipated these considerations by several decades.
Historically, conceptual art sought to maintain control of artistic vision in web of career-making galleries and publications. Much of the reactionary, political art of the ’80s drew attention to pockets of humanity that were being otherwise ignored; it sought to control the flow of information to include the forgotten. Gustav Metzger eclipsed both movements by painting nylon with acid, destroying information with the very act of production—ensuring his ultimate and totalitarian control over the work.
Although destruction is appealing for the nihilistic and unapologetic stance it takes, there are logistical considerations that limit its widespread implementation, not the least of which is the inability of such actions to support extended visual contemplation. Instead, artists and institutions have increasingly diffused their practice across media and site. Creative Time organized an exhibit in New York last fall titled Living as Form that highlighted actions that blurred or did away with the boundaries between art and social activism. E-flux has been promoting DO IT since 1993, a manual of 168 artist’s projects to be realized ex-situ. Upon completion, a record of the project is uploaded on to e-flux’s website where it remains as a record that the artist doesn’t have to be who you think he is, exhibitions can take many forms and, as Walter Benjamin argued in The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction almost eighty years ago, our quest for ownership of artistic production drives us to equate reproductions of such as something equivalently unique. Whether this makes for the death of the aura of a work of art, as Benjamin argued, is another story entirely.
The most popular recent example of this later, diffuse practice is BYOB (Bring Your Own Beamer). Organized initially in Berlin in 2010 by Anne de Vries and Rafaël Rozendaal, the structure is simple: invite as many people as you like to a particular space, either allow walk-on participation or not, and provide them with the power cords necessary to project (beam) their artwork in the company of others. BYOB events have occurred all around the globe as de Vries and Rozendaal need not be in attendance to make it a BYOB event and were most recently part of the inaugural activities for the newly renovated Palais de Tokyo in Paris.
De Vries and Rozendaal, as the artists behind these happenings, are remarkable for their interest in decentralizing the point of creation, that is, giving up almost all control. Their relationship to each BYOB event remains constant, but everything beyond that is dependent on the self-selecting group who chooses to participate. Because they set the system in motion, people’s participation becomes the medium in which de Vries and Rozendaal operate—the totality of the experience becomes their art. The duo is free to pursue other facets of their practice while BYOB spreads their name autonomously; ceding control of all information allows the practice to grow larger, more easily and more organically than if it were to be marketed and continuously organized by de Vries and Rozendaal.
From the level of the organizers of each event, the situation is somewhat different. De Vries and Rozendaal have outsourced the act of curatorship to whichever willing citizen wants to host, who in turn adopts a mantle they may or may not be familiar with. A curator is traditionally someone trained and engaged with the art world, and while most organizers of BYOB undoubtedly fit that profile, the potential for outliers is all the more interesting. By expanding the scope of the artistic practice to not only acknowledge but also include and validate those who are normally excluded, BYOB takes to task the elusive artistic goal of social change. Maybe this is the first step to art’s political salience—get others in the door and in positions of control, and then they will start engaging with the more oblique utopian messages elsewhere.
By including this process for self-expansion in their practice as well as soliciting information from all events in an effort to link them all at a common hub at the BYOB website, de Vries and Rozendaal are creating a self-perpetuating structure that gives credence to not only the artists that get to show with other likeminded participants but also the organizer who operates from a position of real yet inherited power. A symbiotic relationship is established, in which each participant is responsible and in control of his specific component, supporting all others in the process.
It’s this process of extending and expanding artistic authenticity that is essential. Projects that are being discussed as similar mass engagement and facilitation strategies such as the Google Art Project fail in this regard, because although it allows access to different museum collections in one place, the works exist as only simulacra of the real object instead of a genuine extension of it. Furthermore, projects like this maintain the power dynamics that are so intimidating to some people in the first place—artist/institution on one side, viewer on the other. Maybe underfunded institutions can use them as learning tools—I’m sure that’s part of the goal and marketing program—but it’s obvious that for art, the Internet pales in comparison to the physical experience of a museum. The biggest challenge in navigating the Internet has also always been its greatest resource: the lack of control over the information on it. The Google Art Project is well designed and a potentially useful resource, but it simply transfers institutional control to a different platform (while simultaneously inserting itself in the control and flow of this information), without providing any additional access or freedom to the consumer.
BYOB dispatches with all of these complications, however, by being an amenable home to anything that makes the effort to be a part of it, instead of everything that should or could be. More is not better, but well connected and critically understood is. By validating all aspects of the art practice, especially one as decentralized as this, BYOB manages to be an artwork composed of a systemic web rather than a series of linear relationships. Instead of being repressed by what is most basically outsourced manual reproduction in DO IT, the aura Walter Benjamin described thrives in an environment such as BYOB because each iteration is not a reproduction of another, but is instead a continuation. This collaborative model may well serve us in some other avenues as well.