New Productive Systems


Brad Troemel

“Technology will in the near and farther future increasingly turn from problems of intensity, substance, and energy, to problems of structure, organization, information, and control.”

-Jon von Neumann, member of the Manhattan Project and inventor of the first useful computer, 1949


The ‘new’ in art is often said to be a product of its creators’ historical zeitgeist. For instance, the Dadaist’s propensity for the irrational is explained as a result of the way World War I’s unprecedented mechanical violence shattered the dream of a seemingly inevitable industrial utopia. Or how when historians mention the academicism of the founding conceptual fathers, it is frequently raised in light of their being the first generation of artists that were predominantly university educated. Even the consumption-focused art of Jeff Koons, Sherrie Levine, and Barabara Kruger is couched in reaction to the 1980’s neo-liberal policies of economic expansion and corporate wealth. So, while in retrospect it may not be very revelatory to say “art is a sign of the times,” there is nothing that draws the ire of trolls and sincere critics alike more than for a writer to suggest which cultural events are guiding the generational moment of her existence, or to typify how art has been produced in relation to those events. Perhaps this is because those who do not make art relevant to those typifications tend to believe their importance is threatened by exclusion. Understandably, every living artist shares a stake in recognizing what is contemporary, making it both an accessible and contentious subject matter.

Of the range of things that may be considered new in art today, the tendency among artists to organize internet-based systems for the production of art by other participants—henceforth described as productive systems—holds particular salience. Because of these systems’ resistance to traditional methods of art analysis, I will offer new criteria for critically understanding them. Just as the historical avant-garde used the latest technologies to expand the field of what may be considered art, what is novel about these productive systems is influenced by Web 2.0’s network construction of value and the ability to produce one’s own utopian ‘space’ online.

There is something valuable, if inherently flawed, about artists working toward a definition of what makes themselves and their peers different from their predecessors at the moment of their being. “You weren’t there” is the most damning criticism one can launch at a historian, and for good reason. Not only does the historian’s absence remove her from the subtle intricacies of the moment she studies but it also forces her to subjectively assign importance to whatever amount of first hand evidence she is able to gather. It has been said that art that is given a description is dead by the time those words reach the air, but nothing is as morbid as pure silence. Those who believe the saying “what can’t be found on the internet does not exist,” must be amazed at their capability to articulate all that is still unexplained online. This essay is an attempt to provide a generative description for one such phenomenon.


1. The Hive, Bees and Honey

This first section is an attempt to establish a theoretical framework for understanding the multi-faceted nature of productive systems. Some of the artists this essay describes are facilitators for various systems of art’s production on the internet. This is to say that they deal in the so-called aesthetics of administration; the invention of a participatory matrix through which others may assert relations and display visual-conceptual content of their own. Productive systems dynamically accrue meaning from the ongoing interventions of their participants through time. This interactivity requires a four-dimensional mode of interpretation. Critics and viewers must recognize productive systems as sites permanently in progress. As a system’s content is modified, the discourse surrounding it must be as well, in order to remain applicable. While it is possible to look back and single out a productive system’s governing interface, individual relations between users, or specific content displayed through it, none of these individual examples may be used to explain the system as a whole and thus should be seen as merely partial, if helpful, characterizations when reflected on separately. A journalistic blogging approach to criticism may be best suited to address specific elements of these projects as they unfold. Through a writing format that is continuously adaptable, the critic preemptively acknowledges the fleeting nature of her subject matter. Alternately, critics may reflect on a productive system using a narrative approach, identifying the broad-sweeping changes in user contributions leading up to its current state.

Temporal criticism should be applied to each of the various sources of aesthetic merit that comprise a productive system. These conceptually separate (though functionally related) traits may be thought of as the difference between a hive, its bees, and the honey they produce. Previous analytic methods in art have largely offered criticism on the basis of formalist standards or conceptual intention relative to signifiers contained in the ‘honey’ aspect of this metaphor—the completed visual art products that fill history books and museums. Such analytic methods will not be sufficient to approach what is valuable about the existence of a ‘hive’ or ‘bees’ as art in regards to today’s productive systems. Instead, I propose an assessment of these systems based on a new, three-pronged set of criteria:

a. the aesthetics of interfacial architecture

b. the quality of Relational value among participants

c. the commonality of visual content produced

Each of these criteria simultaneously offers a void to be filled and an embedded proclamation about developing a new language for the objects of their criticism. Respectively, the proclamations embedded in these criteria read:

a. The interfacial architecture of a structure that facilitates digital interactions compels not only a social and political dimension, but allows for the consideration of an aesthetic one as well.

This proclamation runs contrary to the notion that technology is utterly determined by the societal or economic context in which it is created. While these contexts are certainly influential on technology coming to be, so too may technology exert its influence on its human inventors, as was obviously the case with the re-organization of society due to the printing press, radio, television and so on. There is an ebb and flow relationship between humans and technology, as each one simultaneously guides the fate of the other. Providing a more polemic example of this notion of reversed influence and the perpetual interplay of human will in the face of technological opportunity and limitation, environmentalist Denis Hayes concludes, “The increased deployment of nuclear power facilities must lead society toward authoritarianism. Indeed, safe reliance upon nuclear power as the principal source of energy may only be possible in a totalitarian state.”[1] In other words, as the theorist Langdon Winner states, “the adoption of a given technical system actually requires the creation and maintenance of a particular set of social conditions as the environment of that system.”[2] If it is feasible to conceive of technology as producing an authoritarian or egalitarian disposition for those in its presence, so too is it within reason to believe the function of technology also presents its own ethical and aesthetic concerns. In the case of productive systems, the criteria I seek to establish is one of aesthetic judgment for what conditions are necessitated by the use of their interfaces and also how such a system’s existence relates to or is situated within the wider fields of art history and social media. There is simply no such thing as a ‘neutral’ or ‘natural’ structure for art to exist through, whether this is via a museum, a Tumblr, or one of the systems applicable to this writing.

Design’s intention is often to obfuscate the function of its underlying mechanism. By decoding the architecture of a productive system, a critic may locate the facilitator’s concealed ideology for bringing such a project into existence. Because it is necessary to question their site-specific inner workings, this first proclamation could be read as an attempt to apply the analytic methods of Institutional Critique to productive systems’ interfaces. A productive system’s interface is the first and last element its facilitator is singularly responsible for.

b. The Relations that occur between participants, viewers and/or administrators of the system should be judged qualitatively.

Nicholas Bourriaud’s theory of Relational Aesthetics—the idea that intersubjective encounters are a source of aesthetic worth—automatically comes to mind with this proclamation. However, these relations should be tethered to Clare Bishop’s criticism that when approaching Relational Aesthetics, viewers should consider the quality of the relations participants have formed in response to the conditions set forth by the facilitating artist. This requires an analysis of the degree to which participants are able to interact with one another as well as the types of interactions they choose to engage in light of those opportunities. On the internet, it may also be helpful to consider the quantity of participants utilizing a system to understand how relations are effected by digital group dynamics. A critical understanding of Relational Aesthetics in these productive systems should not be based purely on economic or moral standards, which is to say, a system that is well trafficked and features polite banter between participants is not, in itself, necessarily an intriguing work of art. Instead, forms of interaction and participation must be contrasted with the system’s interface, raising the possibility that a productive system totally abandoned may provide as much Relational value through its lack of users as a system buzzing with use offers through its masses. The disuse of a productive system may point to an incongruity between the ideology the interface proposes and that of its viewing audience or target demographic of users. Through their absence, a rough sketch of what an audience does value may be formed in opposition to a given system. Following the common belief that the value of art is located in its ability to make visible the previously unseen conditions of existence, what is of Relational value in productive systems may depend upon their users’ ability to tactically make use of a structure they did not create—to reveal a responsive model of social operation and regained agency in the production and dispersion of art. Conversely, the embattled relations a productive system fosters may expose what is repressed through the incessant public congeniality of the professionalized art world or other everyday encounters.[3]

c. The artworks produced by participants in a productive system are intrinsically collaborative and aspire towards becoming a common for universal use.

What complicates the 1990’s-born theory of Relational Aesthetics when applied to contemporary projects is that the Relations between today’s participants are not created by attending events hosted in a museum, but through the communal production of visual works with fellow (internationally-based) artists online in real time, many of whom are producing art in response to one another and/or directives set forth by the system itself. If Conceptual Art provided a framework for viewers to psychically ‘complete’ a work in any location however they chose based on a set of visual or textual cues left to interpretation, productive systems invite participants to create their own work so others may continuously re-purpose it within the same site of interaction. These visual-conceptual contributions to systems are collaborative both before and after their initial display. A participant’s submitted content is made with the limitations and freedoms of an interface in mind, linking the intentions of the system’s facilitator and an artist using that system prior to the submitted work’s existence.

After a participant has inserted her visual art in a productive system, it immediately becomes a source material for the use of others through their ability to download the file. The productive systems this essay pertains to also allow participants to variously comment, vote, delete, or reroute whatever has been included by others, making the perception and existence of a work one mutually determined by its community of participatory peers. Such art recalls the notion of a common, a term defined by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri as being a mutually produced resource available to all.[4] A common is not valued according to its profitability in trade, but by its functionality in use. For example, communicative language is a common only as valuable as its ability to be used expressively. When a common is economically or governmentally regulated, it loses the ability to be mutually produced and the incentive to participate with equal agency in its state of becoming is lost. Of course a common must exist within some boundary of formalized recognition, or its purpose would go unnoticed (i.e. a dictionary alerts us to the existence and intended meaning of words so we may use them and knowingly participate in their repurposing).

In the context of art history, the definition of the word ‘medium’ shares a functional ambivalence with Hardt and Negri’s ‘common’; each is a placeholder for the relatively open determination of its use by external actors. One may view high modernist art critics’ categorical distinctions between mediums as an attempt to establish a set of commons for material production and critical validation. As such, no single person would own ‘painting,’ but by instituting a universal conception of aesthetic purity and beauty for specific types of making, each artist would have a common basis to challenge or confirm those given principals. After the theoretical collapse of medium specificity, mediums did not disappear but took on an intellectual instead of material form. Rather than establishing their interests within a set of codified physical parameters, such as those of painting or drawing, many post World War II artists chose a subject matter or theory to be versioned and repeated across all different materials and modes of production. As a result, things like pop celebrity or post-structuralism became the ‘mediums’ in which artists worked and the objects or devices used to visualize those ‘mediums’ were often a means to a conceptually focused end.

In the absence of standardized modes of material production and the corresponding loss of definitive artistic movements, the desire to produce one’s very own ‘medium’ has been a recurring ambition of artists to differentiate themselves for a variety of reasons. In the case of much art made prior to the 1990’s, establishing a medium resulted from the repetition of one’s self. For instance, Ed Ruscha’s medium of humorous irreverence was verified through his continued focus on the drawl of roadside Americana. By comparing the unifying dead pan of his many billboard-inspired text paintings or his out-of-the-window photographs of the Hollywood strip, a viewer could eventually identify a set of conceptual interests specific to Ed Ruscha, valuing both his intellectual ‘medium’ and the artist himself based on their definitive uniqueness. The irony of this situation is that by repetitively establishing a medium or common conceptual subject for consideration under the guise of a single identity, an artist limits the number of creators for whom it is applicable to one person: herself.

Nicholas Bourriaud describes a turn in the formation of artistic commons towards a tendency he calls Postproduction, whereby the value of an artwork is not located in its ability to be repeated and identified with an individual, but found in its subject matter’s capacity to be diversely reimagined among a network of other artists.[5] To this effect, in their 1999 project, No Ghost Just A Shell, Pierre Huyghe and Philipe Parreno invited a number of artists to make use of a manga character named AnnLee whose copyrights they had previously purchased. Also around this time, an internet-specific type of common entered the public lexicon: the meme. Just as today’s pop cultural memes are understood based on an alchemy of page views and remixed versions, viewers of contemporary internet art value the repetition of projects through the effort of their peers’ reblogs and reproductions. The easiest way to expedite this process of peer awareness and potential recirculation is for an artist to join a pre-existing productive system. Because peers in a productive system recognize the inherently collaborative nature of art placed in this context, posting ‘original content’ is not an attempt to assert one’s uniqueness but a jest made with hopes for a response. Think of it as the slow dialectic process of art history’s participants reacting to one another (typified by Robert Rauschenberg’s Erased De Kooning of 1953) sped up to real time.

While art history has always privileged works that inspired the response of future generations, this collapse of time on the internet has made peer reaction transparent and automatic. Due to the intention among many internet artists to set off a meme-like chain of reaction, a contribution of visual art within a productive system must be evaluated by its salience among peers and ability to thematically reproduce itself. A successful visual work, in this case, is not only defined by its signifiers relative to its conceptual reasoning, but through the ability of the work to act as a ‘medium’ or common ground for a digital audience of peers to then make use of. Each work that re-purposes and stems outward from an original visual post fosters a self-validating effect. The original is now valuable because it is applicable to its constituents and the remix is valuable because it (hopefully) complicates the idea previously set forth by the original. With each responsive post stemming outward from their initial starting points, the totality of these interrelated artworks take on a rhizomatic shape, growing to be a dynamic common (or multiple commons) for others’ conceptual use. One may think of this type of art as an organism, not a product. An artwork’s ability to cultivate attention was once an after-the-fact consideration of its social existence. For art displayed in productive systems, it is now a pre-condition of its content’s quality. (project of the writer)

2. Administrative Cause

A form of art that initiates the production of art by other artists is an admittedly difficult idea at face value. It is even more difficult to consider why these projects typify our current moment, though both become easier to understand when productive systems’ facilitators are contextualized through art history and current technology. One way of rationalizing why these systems are being made at this time would be to project upon them what Jaron Lanier calls “the race to be most meta,” a term used to describe the competition between Web 2.0 social communication companies to be the most expansive and useful.[6] The logic is that if website A can produce an interface to aggregate what you would do on website B, then you have lost the reason to go to website B in the first place, hence, website A has emerged victorious among users. As such, companies like Google and Facebook want to act as the lens through which everyone views and interacts on the internet at all times. It is ubiquity that provides their value. Some may suggest facilitators of productive systems have followed such companies’ suit in understanding value through participatory necessity instead of guarded scarcity. The artist who makes her productive system necessary for other art to function has, in a sense, aggregated all of her participants’ work through her own interfacial conditions. However, this rationalization is only as applicable as today’s facilitators have motives synonymous with those of social media companies. The history and culture surrounding art is certainly competitive, but not limited to profit or growth alone in its motivations.

A similar “race to be most meta” has been feverishly occurring in art’s history for over a century. Movements and individuals have continuously revoked the necessity of their predecessors’ inherent interests in production by proposing increasingly ontological concerns to which art may be applied. Marcel Duchamp’s readymades were a way of announcing: Before any formal considerations, you must contextually establish a work of art as being such through its location and author. By placing an autographed shovel in a gallery, the artist is, by way of absurdist reduction, making apparent the necessary conditions for value all art must oblige. Likewise, feminist art of the 1970’s was a way of stating: Before any authorial considerations, you must recognize the subjugation of women in (art) history and the ensuing biases their historical absence has promoted in you as a viewer. My art makes apparent the misogyny entrenched in art’s system of value. This non-stop peeling back of analytic layers has foolishly led artists like the Stuckists to impossibly claim to work outside of the concerns of recent art history. Others are aware of art’s expanding considerations, yet choose to ignore them anyway. This is a method that, oddly enough, can alternately lead an artist to be considered ‘conservative’ or a radical ‘bad boy/girl’ based on her ethical positions for doing so. Today’s most successful ‘conservative’ portrait painter is no doubt aware of Duchamp’s readymade, though she likely chooses to engage classical portrait painting because of her affection for its history and formal qualities. She is ‘conservative’ because her work has not expanded alongside her critical moment due to a sincere passion for past methods. Andy Warhol regressively claimed to make art for the sake of making money, an obvious ethical affront to art’s proposed self-expressive purity. His more-than-likely awareness of these ethics and subsequent decision to challenge them through meditated provocation made him a ‘bad boy’ because he knew better but did it his way instead.

Beyond these personas of art making, Boris Groys offers another, more recent development:

[…] the artist announces the death of the author, that is, his or her own symbolic death. In this case, the artist does not proclaim himself or herself to be bad, but to be dead. The resulting artwork is then presented as being collaborative, participatory, and democratic.[7]

If we are to believe Groys, here art reaches its greatest point of reductive absurdity yet. It is as though his hypothetical artist says: Before all else, you must consider your own intention because I didn’t make this art and am already dead. In this situation, it may appear that the dead author is the most sophisticated because she evades artistic criticism and is able to profit from the labor of her minion-like participants. However, it would be as flawed to assign all artistic ‘credit’ to productive systems’ initial facilitators as it would be to say that a skyscraper is singularly understood according to the vision of its architect, and withstands no perceptual influence from the companies, employees, and products that come to realize the building’s preliminary design. Identifying these systems solely by their facilitator overlooks what is most inventive about their existence in the first place: the mutual production of artistic content and value. As previously reasoned, there is a set of criteria capable of addressing productive systems, and the tendency to associate such projects solely with their facilitator is a perceptual error that will hopefully be reconsidered in favor of their participants’ efforts.

There is yet another possible intention that is made evident through productive systems’ facilitators’ actions: the desire to create utopian institutions for art. Consider this– artists were previously (and continue to be) limited by the physicality of their art objects because they required money to reproduce and to store. Digital artists are now able to endlessly reproduce and store infinite amounts of their work at significantly lower costs. This technological shift poses many questions for the internet artist. For example, what possibilities arise when our limitations take the form of time as opposed to more physical limitations like space and material resources?

The artist-produced systems this essay describes have innovatively utilized digital non-space on their own accord. Each of these productive systems presents a major departure in the way their interfaces propose art should be shown or made compared to the rules embodied by traditional institutions. While museums display art linearly or chronologically, there exists a productive system that chaotically presents viewers with a uniquely ordered series of videos every time they enter the site based on a network of textual tags. If art world professionals tend to believe the best art is rooted in finding one’s voice through history and practice, today exists a productive system that proposes artists’ begin solving each other’s artistic dilemmas through joint internships. While museums’ curators and boards decide what art is seen in their space, many productive systems’ participants decide for one another what art is seen and when through voting and peer aggregation. In light of opportunities made available on the internet for decentralized and low-cost participation, productive systems may be seen as the embodiments of their facilitators’ and participants’ hopes for how art would most ideally be dispersed and created. While former Institutional Critics attempted to dismantle the master’s house using his own tools, productive systems are now using the master’s tools to build their own shed in the backyard– not far from home, but definitely outside. To the facilitators and participants of productive systems, finding holes in the operating methods of the past through written criticism alone is irrelevant—this is a time to create and participate in institutions of their own making. Productive systems literalize methods of operation for artists beyond the normative art world’s standards of participation, visibility, individual agency and property. It’s growingly apparent something distinct in art’s history is happening here, and it is neither to the credit of people or technology alone, but the product of both working in harmony with one another towards a new, radical potential.

[1] Winner, Langdon. Do Artifacts Have Politics? Daedalus, Vol. 109, No. 1, Winter, 1980. P. 121.

[2] Winner, Langdon. Do Artifacts Have Politics? Daedalus, Vol. 109, No. 1, Winter, 1980. P. 128.

[3] Clare Bishop. Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics. OCTOBER 110, Fall 2004. p. 79

[4] Hardt, Michael and Negri, Antonio. Commonwealth. Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2009.

[5] Nicolas Bourriaud. Postproduction. Lukas and Sternberg, New York 2002. p. 6

[6] Lanier, Jaron. You Are Not a Gadget. Randomhouse, 2010. p. 22

[7] Groys, Boris. Self Design and Aesthetic Responsibility. e-flux journal no. 7, June-August 2009. p. 6



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