[-empyre-] Nonsite as information

Brett Stalbaum stalbaum at ucsd.edu
Sun Jan 13 18:30:29 EST 2008

As John demonstrates, Smithson's notion of the nonsite has been an  
inspiration for many different riffs on various artists, their works  
and the zeitgeist of the arts at many moments in time since the  
1960s. One of the versions that remains compelling to me is the  
nonsite as the clearest early crystallization of the core issue of  
postmodernity: representation escaping the gravity of the real and  
entering into orbital relationships with yet more representation.  
Smithson saw the nonsite as a differentiation that effaces the  
limitlessness of the real. Based on that I would hold that it is  
wrong to discuss his later heroic land art works as closely relating  
to the nonsites. They fall on different sides of what for Smithson  
was the fundamental issue with representation in the first instance.  
In a sense, in his nonsites he saw the hall of mirrors (quite  
literally in the case of the Cayuga Salt Mine Project) that  
postmodernism was becoming, and embodied the problem of  
representation replacing the real in his problematizing of the white  
cube through the nonsite. And this negation turned out to be the most  
powerful of all postmodern riffs, as Rosalind Krauss for example  
would explore in Sculpture in the Expanded Field.

But that Smithson abandoned the nonsite is often overlooked. The  
heroic land art sites were an expression of his dissatisfaction (his  
temperament disallowed anything else) with the differentiated site.  
He longed for the "unbounded state" that site can deliver, and in his  
later work dispensed with the problematized gallery representation  
and the conceptual gold he had mined with it, and moved on to the  
real as its own map and its own representation. (Unafraid of Borges?)  
I find this maneuver to be sadly underestimated by many who have  
taken him up. That he wanted to return to the boundlessness (and  
therefore uncertainty) of the real is of critical importance. Why?  
Because it demonstrates that he saw past postmodernity even if he did  
not live past it.

In other writing, I have related Smithson's leveraging of the play  
between bounded state of the differentiated site and the unbounded  
state of the dedifferentiated site, (which could be stated as the  
limits of representation and the wide openness of experience), to  
Kant's take on beauty vs the sublime and the very contemporary  
problem of data vs information. The distinction between the latter  
pairs (beauty/sublime and data/information) have been poorly  
understood by artists and humanists - the number of times I have seen  
them conflated in my own discipline area (practicing artist) over the  
years is frankly astounding. (Especially data and information.) But  
the bottom line for my little riff on Smithson here is that he was  
able to see past postmodern negation (and its hall of mirrors circus  
of relative meaning) and get beyond it to presage many of the most  
interesting problems that face artists today.

It relates tightly to problems in information aesthetics (the fact  
that Moore's law is being far outpaced by the fact that the data to  
be processed is doubling every *twelve* months), and as Lev Manovich  
might say the interesting problem of the subjectivity of being  
immersed in immense data. While some computer artists try to process  
the data into nonsites (visualizations) that fits in the space of  
representation and meaning, others are trying explore what kinds of  
experiences might be produced as we engage with (and are inflected  
by) data. Call it data romanticism if you will. Nonsite is beauty.  
Site is is sublime. Nonsite is information we can digest and use.  
Site is data that we can at best do our best with: it activates our  
capacity to reason, as Kant might say. Or, stimulates Edmund Burke's  
terror. I believe this matter to be one of the great issues in  
aesthetics today, and is sadly under-considered because it is in fact  
one of the issues that demonstrates we are already well post- 
postmodern, and perhaps well beyond the hall of mirrors of image and  
representation as salient issues. But as artists at least, we are  
having a hard time letting go.

Brett Stalbaum, Lecturer lsoe
University of California San Diego
Department of Visual Arts

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