The Age of Instability
Short essay by Arjen Mulder - To understand today’s world, one must understand what instability is, and what its consequences are, socially, politically and economically but also mentally.
To understand today’s world, one must understand what instability is, and what its consequences are, socially, politically and economically but also mentally. Interdisciplinary collaboration between art and research generates an ecology of knowledge domains in which instability can be made productive.
All art decays – some of it over millennia, some within milliseconds. Unstable media are those whose signal lasts at most for a few seconds, rather than centuries, like sculptures, or years, like videotapes. In 1982, when V2_ was founded in Den Bosch, the Netherlands, people thought of unstable media as microphones, radios, live concerts, performances, computers – anything with electronics inside. Since then, practically every medium and every human activity has been linked to and made part of digital networks, and more and more media have thus become unstable, with all the attending consequences. We continue to be surprised by this in the course of conducting our research. The stable foundation has shifted and in some cases even fallen away, not only in art but also in politics, economics, agriculture, the sciences, history, climate, the credit system, and so on. When you work with technology, you become technological, and when you connect yourself to a digital network, you become a network. You lose stability, but if you maintain speed, you keep your shape and value. Unstable machines, images, sounds, installations and theories yield amazement and wealth. Globalization is at once the greatest and the most problematic blessing of our time. The truism that we live in a media society means that everything has become a medium, and highly unstable.
V2_ is an organization and platform for electronic art research, development, reflection, presentation and production which brings together knowledge and networks. It offers space for experimentation, reflection and research and the opportunity to realize artistic productions. V2_ is a center for knowledge in its field, and it connects other knowledge centers through its activities. The resulting exchange and dialogue creates added value, which is expressed in the productions and research carried out at V2_.
Shaping new realities
In other words, V2_ stages public presentations and workshops, symposiums and debates; creates works with artists; organizes exhibitions, festivals and artist residencies; publishes books; and presents projects and technological research, and it’s all held together by the theory and practice of instability. What is this practice? Unstable systems maintain coherence and developmental potential through interaction between their component elements and their own interaction with their surroundings – in our case, the network society, the globalized world, and science, which has now even taken away stability from our very genetic foundations. V2_ creates art and then tests it for its developmental possibilities. Without this artistic side, V2_ would never move beyond generating opinions and what-ifs. Art is autonomous enough to engage in interaction with any social development at an equal intellectual level with scholars and technologists. Interdisciplinarity takes time, but when it occurs, the results are always interesting. One understands things better and becomes conscious of what to pay more attention to henceforth. V2_ is a reflective way of looking at the world, but it is also a place where software and hardware get made, and where you hear people talking about the things they’ve done and thought of and the things they want to do. The point is always “agency,” to put it in contemporary terms.
V2_ sees art not only as a means of representation but as a means of analyzing, questioning and shaping the new realities that media and technology bring with them. Interactivity and participation are important here: we don’t want passive consumers but critical producers who take an active part in shaping the world around them, and in shaping themselves.
Note the words “and in shaping themselves”: interacting with V2_ is not a commitment-free activity. When the existing world is made extraordinary – sometimes incomprehensible, sometimes all too transparent – you are able to see where you can intervene, change, forge or facilitate a new connection, together with others, and what will happen then ...
The results of the interdisciplinary “encounters” we organize are often surprising, sometimes confusing, but always productive. V2_ functions as a connecting machine within a diverse local, national and international network of people and institutions.
The coherence of unstable networks
Matter rules! When you connect two or three mutually exclusive ideas through a series of artists’ projects, the brain cells start to fire. Connecting is also a neurological process. Are solutions to world problems found at V2_ and turned into lucrative businesses? When they are found, they are always multiple: there is a choice of which way to go. V2_ says it doesn’t want passive consumers. There is always room for agency, but you have to organize it yourself, and in the process, other domains always open up where change is possible, where you can work, where the strangest things happen – and who knows, maybe in ten years the most efficient solution will be pulled from somewhere out of the heap. So at V2_, it’s not just one art that’s practiced but always several simultaneously, and a scholar or philosopher is always part of things, so as to expand the palette. The theorists explain the world, and the artists show where it can be brought to life – non-organic life, in a process of self-organization, but one requiring a push. Emergence, synergy, the creative industry – it’s been called all kinds of things, this value that’s generated by a working interdisciplinarity. One plus one equals at least two, and sometimes more. We seek not to simplify or reduce complexity but to use it to arrive at new ideas, build new systems, write new software, organize spirited audience confrontations. You must stay on guard, lest you find yourself stuck in one school of thought, leading inexorably to a fellowship or professorship. There are always plenty of currents: what kind of pattern will appear? Our society is no longer hierarchically arranged but instead develops in network form: everyone links to everyone and everything, and this is how unstable systems maintain their coherence, their changing shape.
Internationally, the Netherlands is admired for its diversity of disciplines representing electronic culture. Mediamatic is known for design; STEIM for electronic music; Waag Society for education and its sociocultural orientation; Submarine for its documentaries, games and films; the Netherlands Media Art Institute for video art; De Balie for its social and political activities; and V2_ for art, technology and scholarship.
This compartmentalization also has its disadvantages. Specialization leads to precision, and to careful, well-founded projects, but the scope is limited, the island shrinks and expands, and no one is sure of his or her existence, so you have to be well organized. Professionalization means constantly watching to see if anything changes, if anything is self-organizing. Virtuality is not some cyber-nonsense but the developmental potential of the non-organic world: it’s what sets information in motion and gives rise to meaning, if you’re watching closely. V2_ concentrates on its research work, on theory formation, the production of artworks and presentations, publishing books, and the archiving problems of unstable media – to keep ourselves alert.
Agency and interactive art
The emphatic positioning of V2_'s activities within art signifies that we do not wish to place ourselves in the niche usually indicated by the term “media art” but see our activities as part of the development of modern art.
And what is modern art? It is art that no longer wishes to form a closed whole at which the viewer can gaze as a consumer or collector; it is open, that is, part of a network or willing to form one with the viewer, who therefore becomes, or can become, a participant in the work, even its cocreator. Feel free to touch the art: what’s more, if all you do is look, it won’t even be art. This interactive art is different from media art, a category it is often lumped into. Media art is art that responds to the images that reach us through “the media,” i.e., television and advertising, photography and film, video and websites, games, cell phones, and all the other visual media. These images are recast, dismantled, recombined, simplified and exceeded, and the result is media art. What makes it art is the distance from familiar images that is created, for this makes reflection possible. It allows you to analyze those images in place of following them blindly, but you can also value them aesthetically once you are no longer their victim: media art is inevitably beautiful. You can’t always say that about the “modern art” V2_ identifies with. Interactive art, or more generally network art, does not look at images but uses them as an interface. The aesthetic moment lies elsewhere: in interaction and in the imagination activated by that interaction. How is it activated? The more abstract and immaterial the media used, the more physical our experience of them will be. The initial feeling provoked by a new electronic medium is always: the sound has lost its body, the image has lost its body – I have lost my body! But things quickly turn out to be otherwise: an interface is a field of action, and you act there, but the electronic world behind it also acts on you, generating feelings, experiences that are the aesthetic form of as yet inexpressible insights. The human body is a promoter of knowledge which, when connected to a series of different machines, or else the same one for a long time, allows us to attain a plateau of knowledge a level higher than the one we had previously thought in, a meta-vision, a peak experience anchored in the body. Every world problem and every phenomenon on earth can be understood if you manage to tune in to the right wavelength. This is what interactivity does: we understand each other through changing each other, and we understand the other through allowing it to change us. It is not only the image that is transformed, as in media art: this time, the viewer, too, metamorphoses and discovers that he or she is able to help determine the image, albeit within the boundaries art prescribes. Those boundaries do not so much restrict as intensify. Network art, or art as network, is a strange kind of art: you cannot predict in advance what it will do, whether it will activate its viewers or remain a foreign object. And what do the visitors, the participants, do with it? V2_ tests this art at public presentations, and endlessly continues to tinker with and reprogram it. There is no such thing as a finished piece of interactive art; it appears that you can generate unstable experiences only through unstable technological installations. There is nothing slick about this art.
V2_ as transdisciplinary connection machine
The audience we reach is relatively young (eighty percent are between twenty and thirty) and in general highly educated. They are creators, developers, scholars, students, designers, architects and artists from various disciplines and fields of knowledge. This audience is often actively involved and interested in the themes addressed in V2_’s research and presentations.
Are you part of the target group? Isn’t it time you were? There is a building in Rotterdam where people come together in order to understand the times we live in and then think of and test ways of acting in those times. What new possibilities do they present? “Artists are the antennae of the race,” Marshall McLuhan said, but at V2_ there are no visionaries, gurus or moral philosophers, just people paying close attention and thinking and working hard. What sparks your imagination? Where do you see something developing with an unknown outcome? V2_ is about self-organization, finding your own path. You always take something away from the presentations; something always lifts you up. You can’t predict what it will be; at least, things often turn out very different from what you envisioned when you decided to go to a given presentation. It’s all about reflecting on technology by learning to value it; otherwise you wouldn’t be able to use it to do anything surprising. Is this an educational program? Definitely. Nature was nice; technology is interesting. You can do remarkable things with it; technology arouses feelings that never existed before. The aesthetics of interactivity inquires into the nature and quality of the connection forged between the artwork and the audience, how that interaction affects you, and how you can use the technology. Every experimentally minded circle discovers V2_ at some point. Hence the idea of a connection machine: you keep meeting people through V2_. On its website, too. The website will usually be your first object of study when you go looking for V2_. The archive will probably be the second. Also watch for announcements.
V2_ stands for innovation in art and culture through inter- and transdisciplinary collaboration, and knowledge exchange with other fields. At the same time, V2_ sees art as an essential tool for investigating wider social and scientific issues.
Written by Arjen Mulder, November 2009. The italicized quotes come from V2_’s 2007 strategic agenda and 2009–10 policy plan.