ZKM | Zentrum für Kunst und Medientechnologie
<published in FUSE art magazine, Toronto>
The Smell of Elephant Shit / The Digitally Contrived
The world caged. Bounded in one place. Evolution frozen. The hippo squeezed into a petty enclave of 400 sq ft. eating severely light German chocolate—delicious—cake in Karlsruhe—that is Karlsruhe Zoo.
Karlsruhe is the new/old technological capital of German applied science/intent.
It is a city built under the watchful eye of the Margrave Karl Wilhelm of Baden-Durlach (1679 - 1738) the founder of the city of Karlsruhe. The pamphlet at the tourist office describes the Margrave thus: "The Margrave had a pleasure—loving nature—except for his wife, whom he left behind in Durlach, he was very attentive to women."
"..In the electric age history no longer presents itself as a perspective of continuous visual space, but as an all-at-once and simultaneous presence of all facets of the past...Awareness of all-at-once history or tradition goes with a correlative awareness of the present as modifying the entire past.It is the vision that is characteristic of the artistic perception which is necessarily concerned with making and change rather than with any point of view or any static position." McLuhan.
At first the only building in the city was the Margrave's own residence and so "in order to make life pleasanter, he decided to attract inhabitants to his town.The people who took up residence near his palace were granted many privileges: they were given land and wood for nothing; serfdom and statute labour were abolished; taxes were waived for 20 years; and they were guaranteed religious freedom. He made Karlsruhe his official residence in order to persuade the new citizens to move there. The first inhabitants were Prussians, Poles, Saxons, Bavarians,Suabians and people from Alsace, not forgetting of course people from the surrounding area. This population mixture gave rise to a new dialect —"Brigandendeutsch".
The city's design is based on the concentric embrace of absolutism. Radiating rays of sunlight originating from the munificence of the Margrave's Palace and by extension, the Margrave himself.
In the town of Karlsruhe, the smell of elephant shit is sensate.An aged Imperial Zoo that boasts some of the world best success in breeding contains more than one thousand animals of 150 different species. Zebras, giraffes, antelopes, polar bears,Persian ahus, elephants and lions and an oak tree honouring Otto Bismarck dedicated in 1847.
"Electronic man approaches the condition in which it is possible to deal with the entire environment as a work of art.The new possibility demands total understanding of the artistic function in society." Marshal McLuhan
From the promotional literature:
"ZKM, Museum for the New Millennium, Magnet for Visitors.
In 1997, the ZKM took up permanent residence in a listed industrial building impressive both for its striking architecture and vastness...its size -300 metres long and 52 metres wide."
The belief you can capture the evolving art of the digital without in actuality altering its reality is the simple conceit that ZKM's premise is built. Museums predicate work/objects predicate canvas/frames/screens, the manufacturing and storing of aesthetic experience like so many exotic animals. An imperial gesture blind to the environmental consideration and properties of the medium.
Yet, strictly the digital is directly a transform - a transfiguration of the whatever through code into yet another whatever of code. Its formal properties demand conceiving the medium as the ground of rhetorical, philosophical, and ideological contention.Counter to the spin of the conservative agenda, ideology did not vaporize into so much ancient history with the fall of the Berlin Wall.
"Our typical response to a disturbing new environment is to re-create the old environment instead of heading the newopportunities of the new environment. Failure to notice the new opportunities is also failure to understand the new powers...This failure leaves us in the role of mere automata." McLuhan
It is through the reflections engendered by an emmersion in the property of encoding, and of memory, that the structure of future developments rests.
The next Margrave Karl Friedrich was an example of an enlightened, absolute sovereign, who abolished torture in 1769 and serfdom in 1783. The reputation of Karlsruhe as a Court of Muse came about not least because of his wife's (Margravine Caroline Luise, 1723 1783) interest in arts and natural sciences. Prominent thinkers, poets and musicians such as Voltaire, Herder,Lavater,Goethe,Klopstock,Gluck and Wieland were among their guests.
The ZKM Mediathek
A state of the art, slick and impressive, user controlled auto-robot Mediathek is part of the ZKM Centre. Oddly the curatorial direction of the collection, at present at least, concentrates on the low-tech video/performance art of the 70's and early 80's and then jumps ahead to the polished video/computer art of the 90's. Experimental film, the substantive pre-cursor to much of the high tech digital video/computer works is overlooked. Glaring as it is in much of the structural, visual/technical, and grammatical/montage work of this 'school'(from say Brakage to Straub/Huillet to Trinh T. Minh-ha) that the antecedent of the rhetorically interesting works in hypermedia can be found.
Karlsruhe in the 19th Century
In 1803 universal compulsory education was introduced in Baden (and by extension Karlsruhe). This ‘Reading revolution' created the basis for the politicization of the lower classes. In 1848 the French February Revolution lit the spark in Germany. The German uprising began in Baden, and ended here in 1849 with the bloody suppression by Prussian troops of the first, short lived republic on German soil.
The first polytechnic in Germany was founded in Karlsruhe in 1825. Today Karlsruhe boasts a number of hi-tech research centre including Germany's premiere lab in nano-technology and the world's most important, largest, and most influential digital media museum.
Boundaries or frames intrinsically involve paradox. They are always of a different logical type from that which they bound or isolate.
The Media Museum ZKM is looked upon by many in the digital media community as an achievement that they would like their own communities/countries to emulate. A sad mistake. I believe that it is worthwhile to have research centres and retreat centres where artists can have access to equipment, dialogue, and additional knowledge and debate however the essential formal properties of the digital media demand a much greater, inclusive, and public engagement than a warehousing of 'digital art'.
Art that not only uses but understands and integrates the potential of the digital media is not object oriented - it is process oriented. That process is one that encompasses the global properties of the medium, its relationship to complexity, and its transfigurative,social/political/cultural capacity.
Artists are not stupid - but neither are they particularly known for their integrity. They are more often than not self-serving. This results in the desire to see works situated in the venues that offer prestige and financial reward—thus the singular nature of the animal becomes engineered by the zoo masters.
All bureaucracies, 'educational', cultural, critical, institutional, prefer the imperialism of the object oriented art work. It makes their life easier! They need not question (or be questioned about) their own use value within the new processes and structures that are opened up by the new technologies.
"The potential of any technology is always dissipated by its users involvement in its predecessor."
In this case it is the users involvement with the deadening, zoolike nature of the gallery circuit, the lion-taming acts of curators, managers, administrators, institutions and the power hungry cultural tailors - who are putting a break on the evolution of the medium- its subversive mutational potential- that go about claiming we need to find more place for 'digital art' in the salons of the nation. It seems to me that what they are generally buying into is a bunch of expensive Rube Goldberg contraptions (that generally don't work) meant to impress through their (quite variable) technical sophistication audience who are unable to discern their RAM from their ROM.
It would have been fine to judiciously give the animal enough land to forage as it needed to feed but to say that they have it and have locked it up?
It has already gotten fat with all that delicious cake, and with little exercise will surely have an early death.
According to critics I met recently in Graz, Austria, the ZKM centre's heating budget is greater than their budget for the Artists-in-Residence Program.