[-empyre-] re: Nonsite as information, forward from Johannes Birringer

Christina McPhee christina at christinamcphee.net
Mon Jan 14 03:35:45 EST 2008

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Forward from Johannes

hello all:

I am just beginning to read this discussion, and won;t comment yet on  
the fascinating distinction , or pair of distinctions, set up by Brett.

> .The distinction between the latter
pairs (beauty/sublime and data/information) have been poorly
understood by artists and humanists >>

I am not sure that i instinctively understand the comparison between  
the Kantian notions of beauty/sublime, or the poetic dimensions of,  
say, 19th century transcendentalist landscape/painting or Hölderlin's  
writings, and the functional distinction between data and information,  
i can;'t quite follow this into the Smithson practice of working on  
site.  I will need to read more of the previous posts.

>> His spiral of earth, slowly
sinking into the Great Salt Lake, could almost parody a Sol LeWitt
wall drawing. But had he foreseen a digital universe, would he ever
have entered the gallery?>>

surely, yes. the digital does not change the real (eixstence of visual  
arts / galleries / institutions of display).
the digital also does not affect sites. (nor their mirrors).
Smithson hardly disdained conceptual art, i think he is a better  
writer (than an artist).
earthworks are a myth. they don't really exist, just as Turrell's  
Roden Crater Project is perhaps not something one would call an earth  
i also think there is much structure and necessity on streets.

i want to greet you all, and Brett's last post  - coming from  
California - made me want to mention that i visited the closing night  
of an exhibit in Houston (at Menil Collection), which shows Bruce  
Nauman's early work when we had attended and finished art school in  
California (http://www.menil.org/exhibitions.html) .  The exhibit is  
an eye opener.  Called "A Rose has no Teeth" -- it displays many of  
Nauman's early performances on "nonsite" (?), in his studio, doing  
actions, activities, strangely humorous and odd explorations of the  
body as material, of material in space, or sound, action, and  
enactment.  Thinking of Smithson's work process for the Spiral Jetty  
(and the FILM of the spiral was also shown in the Tate Modern, where  
it looked as if it actually was intended as a film project, not an  
"earth work", perhaps it was a flight ./ airplane project, the earth  
or rather the water/lake viewed throigh a camera lens from the  
air.......) , i wonder how much of the real (or the sublime) is  
actually performed aqnd necessarily moved to the photographic?

the photographic, of course, as we know, always lies. [See: Art, Lies  
and Videotape:  Exposing Performance.  Ed. Adrian George.  Liverpool:   
Tate, 2003]

with regards

Johannes Birringer
AlienNation Co.


From: empyre-bounces at lists.cofa.unsw.edu.au on behalf of Brett Stalbaum
Sent: Sun 1/13/2008 7:30 AM
To: jhaber at haberarts.com; soft_skinned_space
Subject: [-empyre-] Nonsite as information

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

Winter 2008 office hours
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VIS141A - Thurs. 4-6PM, UC201-230
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