[-empyre-] Nonsite: From Smithson to New Media

John Haber jhaber at haberarts.com
Sat Jan 12 07:56:52 EST 2008

Hi, and thanks to you all and to Christina McPhee for having me join
you. You picked a natural topic, too, for Empyre: in art, "site" and
"nonsite" are all about creating cross-disciplinary communities.
Besides, I had not thought before of their connection to new media. The
terms go back, of course, before digital art. One usually traces
nonsites to Robert Smithson, and that has me thinking. How do we get
from Smithson and similar practices by another artist, Gordon
Matta-Clark, to new media? What do we gain in the process? I propose to
explore just that.

New-media artists might like to think they have set the paradigm for
nonsites. They could even have the copyright, give or take open source
code. One speaks of a Web page as a site, but as traces of elsewhere,
distributed across many networks. An elsewhere that leaves cookies on
one's "home" computer makes an even better model for a nonsite. Like
Christina in her own videos and digital prints, artists have used also
geologic and other data to represent landscape -- both online and in the
interior of a gallery. In this way, the facticity of real time becomes a
potent metaphor for the representation of real space.

Even now, however, there is no escaping another generation entirely.
When MOMA reopened in 2004, it displayed the film of Smithson's "Spiral
Jetty." When the Met added a small gallery for contemporary photography
in 2007, it included Matta-Clark. Worse for those who insist on sites as
open communities, their Whitney retrospectives came with a sense of
closure. A pier that Matta-Clark illegally helped dismantle is giving
way to more space for salmon and a park along the Hudson. The "Floating
Island" that Smithson planned, a barge of still more rubble, circled

More to the point, their influence is everywhere. I want to start my
next post with their visibility today. For now, though, let me leave you
with a quote. I shall come back to it in due course, but it has to be
the one thing about new media that Smithson would have understood. It is
from Sartre, in a late interview with Simone de Beauvoir: "But what's
weird is how I started to think about chance. . . . I had just seen
movies that left nothing to chance, and when I went out I had found
contingency. It was the necessity of film that made me feel that there
is no necessity on the street."

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