Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Frog with Implanted Webserver

I just returned from the opening night of the Dutch Electronic Art Festival in Rotterdam. I am not happy.

The first work visitors are confronted with is something called Experiments with Galvanism: Frog with Implanted Webserver. Here is the official description of the work:
Garnet Hertz has implanted a miniature webserver in the body of a frog specimen, which is suspended in a clear glass container of mineral oil, an inert liquid that does not conduct electricity. The frog is viewable on the Internet, and on the computer monitor across the room, through a webcam placed on the wall of the gallery. Through an Ethernet cable connected to the embedded webserver, remote viewers can trigger movement in either the right or left leg of the frog, thereby updating Luigi Galvani's original 1786 experiment causing the legs of a dead frog to twitch simply by touching muscles and nerves with metal. Experiments in Galvanism is both a reference to the origins of electricity, one of the earliest new media, and, through Galvani's discovery that bioelectric forces exist within living tissue, a nod to what many theorists and practitioners consider to be the new new media: bio(tech) art.
Let me translate for those readers not accustomed to the morally vacuous language of the wine-soaked art world:

Asshole takes the corpse of a frog---amphibian corposes are easy to come by in these days of human-instigated global warming, toxified water, and poisoned air---sticks some motors in its legs and wires in the gallery, and invites visitors to participate in his shit-brained glorification of an artistically bad, technologically backward, and morally repugnant idea.

(Hey, you don't think it's morally repugnant to use a frog's corpse? How about we use your grandmother's corpse instead? Put her in a clear glass container of mineral oil and click the mouse to make her legs kick. Sorry: if you don't get what's wrong I don't know if I can explain it to you.)

The single redeeming factor in the inclusion of this otherwise utterly useless, horrendously uncreative and straight up tasteless attempt at "art" in the DEAF exhibition is that at the very least it alone demonstrated (brazenly, arrogantly, proudly, shamelessly) something inherent in everything else on display: the absolute affrontery to the natural world necessary to be a good and cooperative "media artist" in this trash heap of a culture.

Your little art goes beep and lights flash and another sixty or so Iraqi children succumb to some strange form of cancer to make it happen. Safely tucked in here at the end of history you make a witty installation with RFID (radio frequency identification) technology---my, what big subsidies you have!---while brown people somewhere else are forced to show their ID cards at (American, British, Israeli, whatever) gunpoint to get to the other side of town.

Besides leaving, there was nothing I wanted to do---as an experiment, of course---so much as shut down the electricity on some of these artists. For good.

Now is as fine a time as any to let you know that I'm just about through reading volume one of Derrick Jensen's heartbreaking call to action Endgame. Jensen---whose earlier work A Language Older Than Words was, until now, perhaps the single most important book I have ever read---is turning my bad attitude even worse.

And yet: You. Must. Read this book. Start here.

Back to cutting off the electricity. I wonder what these "media artists" or "electronic artists" or whatever would do if there were no electricity to juice their little gadgets and installations (and fucking "bio(tech) art"). So much of it---and this is a conclusion Jensen would quickly make if he bothered to dally in the minutiae of this ultimately inconsequential and wine-soaked world---so much of it simply legitimizes and glorifies harmful technologies, often without any meaningful content to at least somewhat call out the culture's persistent violence.

Guess what the theme of DEAF 07 is? Ready for this? Interact Or Die!

Now I suppose this could be understood a number of ways. For example, it could be a call to all of us to start interacting with each other in meaningful ways. After all, it is the absence of our own nurturing of community that allows governments and corporations to set the agenda and limits of human interaction. Or "interact or die" might be a warning that we fail to recognize the fact of interdependence in the natural world we (should) inhabit at the risk of spiritual and ultimately literal death.

But since the natural world was so completely absent in this exhibition (with one or two minor exceptions: a video with leaf cutter ants carrying little national flags instead of leaves, for example) I have to assume that what we were invited to interact with was the unnatural world of these works. The field for interaction is the field defined by these uncreative creations, mobilizing under the banner of the unusually explicit "interact or die" theme to do further violence to lingering memories of the Planet Earth (where once upon a time frogs ate mosquitos, not ethernet impulses, and lived on the banks of rivers, not clear glass containers of mineral oil).

I do realize that I might be alienating myself from the few friends in the art scene here who even bothered to read this far. I know some of this may be unpopular with my computer-programming, electronic musician colleagues. And sure: part of my work exists within the realm of electronic art, insofar as it uses electricity and electronics. (I'm even using electricity and electronics now to fire off this mediated communique.) This is not a fact in which I rejoice, but an issue with which I wrestle constantly.

But this isn't about me. I don't stick ethernet cables in corpses.


Anonymous said...

I like your blurb a lot more than the official one..

michael said...

nicely put. been to too many of these exhibitions where it is self-referential and the artists are trying not to comment on, change or even express anything but just to alter something slightly in a way that makes them seem witty and non-controversial or alternatively being controversial but vacuous so that start to get in the papers and get some nice corporate funding

bollocks to that

Frances said...

'Vacuous language of the wine-soaked art world', you've got that right, Keir. Frog implanted with web server sounds like a hideous nightmarish blend of highschool biology, tech. class, and art. What happened to teaching ethics and morality?
You are probably aware of the 15% human sheep and the gross experimentation with womb transplants.

Now scientists are creating human sperm from bone marrow.

I am sure this will be injected into sheep testies within the near future. And so the frankenstinian techno march continues.
Thats what this art exhibit parallels. It would be interesting to find out what corporate sponsorship is funding the art colleges that are producing these amoral pompous idiots.
Great critique, Keir.

vlad said...

So revolting. "Interact or die" means "obey or die", of course. I expect that the funding, in Holland at least, is coming from the government more than corporate sources.. but what does it matter? I urge you to NOT PARTICIPATE in any art sector which does not live up to your expectations. It's simply not worth it. Settle for nothing less than total authenticity. You know what is right.

Keir said...

Thanks everyone for the comments. Frances I may have a post coming up dealing with the issues your links raise.

Two things: I am committed to artistic freedom and I am firmly against censorship (who would do the censoring?). But just as "freedom of speech" does not imply that shouting "fire" in a crowded auditorium (or "terrorist" in a crowded world) should be protected, I think it is possible to identify responsible---perhaps "accountable" is a better word---uses of one's artistic freedom.

While I will not define what is moral here, I will say that there's no such thing as "amoral" as far as I'm concerned. The moral code of the artist implanting a frog corpse with a webserver---an earlier work of the same artist has a live cockroach placed in a robotic apparatus---is absolutely clear.

darius said...

unfortunately the sickening story doesn't stand on its own:

Frances said...

You know Keir, frogs are the keepers of water. This really speaks to peoples ignorance and utter disregard for the very foundations of life. First Nations peoples all over the globe have powerful teaching stories about mistreating frogs and desecrating their watery habitat.
Even frogs know better...they dont pee in the water they live in.
btw...I was using the word amoral incorrectly and meant to say immoral. I agree with what you say about accountability and censorship.

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sk said...

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