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Shadow Searching

Art today finds itself in an ironic predicament, leaving the house of art strangely divided upon itself, as light is to shadow. After a century of experimentation, it is now commonly acknowledged that although obviously not everything is art, anything can be, from urinals to windmills, consulting firms to libraries – in short readymade objects and activities of all descriptions. This is sometimes called the “crisis” of contemporary art, but it is not so much a value crisis – since it goes beyond the question of whether such art is good, bad or indifferent – as art’s very condition today. If we are to speak of a crisis, then we might prefer to say that it is a crisis of art’s very being in the world – an “ontological” crisis, as philosophers say. For art has ended up laying claim to an historically unprecedented ontological status: something can be art without differing one iota in terms of its physical or perceptual properties from something that is not art. Most things look like what they are; and until recently – even now in popular consciousness – art too looked like art. That is, it had a generic definition: if a symbolic configuration belonged to an artistic genre, then it was art. But the field has expanded – indefinitely, or so it would seem. How then does something that isn’t art suddenly become art? Or something that doesn’t appear to be art turn out in fact to be art, bearing in mind that objects are notoriously recalcitrant to changing their ontological status at the snap of the finger? The answer is simple: framing. When something – anything – is framed as art, then it is liable to be perceived as such (though never by all). And when acknowledged to be art by an artworld – that aggregate of individuals, producers and consumers, who share a set of conventions about what the word art means – well, then art it is. Though on the one hand this seems an extraordinarily emancipated condition, upon closer scrutiny it throws art into a potentially debilitating mutual dependency with spectatorship. Because of course if nothing indicates that whatever it is claims to be art – in the absence of any framing device – then there is no reason the person seeing it should assume the position of a spectator, and art just doesn’t happen. Art has become a question of specific visibility.

This thrusts art right to the heart of what might be called the “contemporary attention economy,” for in the absence of attention – that is, of art-specific visibility – art simply disappears, or more precisely, fails to appear. In the visual arts tradition, not to mention for the physical and conceptual architecture of the institutions governing it, this problem cannot be merely wished away for if it is not visible, art eludes all control, all prescription, in short, all “policing”… It is a complex question as to why art set out to shuck its very identity in the first place. One reason is that art has always had to do with the dialectics of the visible and the invisible and cannot be satisfied with merely representing that relationship: it must embody it. But that scarcely explains why art has become invisual. Much of the experimentation in the last century had to do with art wanting to abolish itself – to become one with life, doing away with its symbolic privileges. Paradoxically, this has led art to lay claim to unheard-of ontological privileges. Today, though, things are somewhat different, for if ever more artists and art-related practitioners are deliberately impairing the coefficient of artistic visibility of whatever it is they are doing and making, it is to give it a double ontological status: let it be what it is and an artistic proposition of the same thing. Art in this case becomes a matter of self-understanding without seeking specific visibility. In this case, the object or activity is not brought into the frames of the artworld, but remains not so much unframed as deframed. Perhaps in this way it can avoid the crippling paradox that has made such a mockery of art’s heartfelt but largely unfounded claims to be able to change the world: that to say something (anything) is art, is to acknowledge that it’s just art… not the potentially more corrosive, even censorship-deserving real thing…

The paradox is then as plain to see as the art is, by definition, impossible to detect: by staying off the radar screens of the artworld – calibrated as they are to practices seeking to maximize, not minimize, their coefficient of visibility in the attention economy and their concomitant ranking in the reputational economy – these practices remain in the shadows. This raises a series of questions:

-How can these practices be detected at all, and where should we begin looking for them?

-If and when they are identified, is it ethical to bring them into the harsh light of an attention economy they deliberately sought to avoid?

-And if so – on the grounds that they not be lost for posterity, for instance – how can this properly and responsibly be done?

-If art, as an experimental worldmaking process, is forsaking visibility, perhaps in exchange for greater purchase on the real, what does this say about subjectivity in our world, so largely premised on capitalizing on attention – itself a form of capital today?

-And crucially, how do these practices sustain themselves?

-What economic models allow them to coexist in a spy-style relationship to attention economy practices?

-Beyond that, what is the relation between the attention economy and the shadow economy? -How can the resources – the attention surplus – of the former be reinvested in the latter?

-Can the shifting shadows at the edge of our fields of attention sustain viable, plausible artworlds?

Be they neighbourhood based or web-based, such stealth practices are often collaborative, if only because no one person constitutes an artworld unto themselves. But the exponential growth of inter-cerebral connectivity made possible by the internet provides a useful model for thinking through the dynamics of such practices, particularly since web 2.0 is premised less on a pay-for-content spectatorship model than on a model of user-generated content. The challenge and the battle in the development of the new semantic web 3.0 is to ensure remuneration for usership while providing means to effectively hamper the privatisation of community-generated knowledge and value. This very much applies to the shadow economics of art practices that advance masked as other activities.