In an age of fatal de-sensitisation, when the horrific and the terrible are routine, it is almost inevitable that I should choose to start with an apocalyptic vision of the future: this vision will be less of a celebration and more of a cautionary tale. In the future, I suspect, art will undergo a comprehensive process of 'de-matting'. I am employing this financial metaphor, drawing it from the realm of stocks and shares, to push to the extreme the idea of a de-materialised and de-localised art of the future.
In the scenario that I will outline here, such conventional art institutions as galleries and museums will perhaps become defunct (as the cyber-artist Jeffrey Shaw notes playfully, discussing his installation, 'The Virtual Museum', the telematic living room of the future will be occupied by "sedentary travellers in a simulated world" with world-ranging access to art holdings at their cybernetic fingertips). Theoretically, at least, technology will ensure that the process of production, access and reception of art will be fully democratised. Art, therefore, will be vehiculated through telematics: this will transform not only its form, but also its content, in radical ways.
'De-mat art', as I will call this telematics-based art of the future, will function in a constantly changing virtual landscape that is trans-time and trans-space. Rapid advances in the field of telematics (especially the increasing use of computer systems in the former Third World) will ensure the sustenance of such a de-materialised art, and also facilitate the entry into this new space of art of impulses that were not formerly regarded as 'art-worthy': we will have a further democratization here, an opening-up of the terrain of art-making to constituencies that were not formerly regarded as art-makers, or whose experiences have not been recognised by formal art institutions as a valid basis for art. The monopoly of academy-trained artists will be challenged by citizens at large, empowered by cybernetics.
Correspondingly, with the dismantling of the conventional art infrastructure (or, at least, its marginalisation in favour of telematics-based art venues), the users of de-mat art will no longer belong to the traditional community of art-gallery viewers. New constituencies of users -- let us call them cybernauts -- would emerge.
Here comes the caveat, however: even as the process of art-viewing becomes de-hierarchised, art may run the risk of becoming indistinguishable from entertainment, sharing a hyphenated relationship with fashion and commerce, it will always be topical. We must reflect on whether it would not, in its very novelty, cease to have a determinate bearing on the textures and directions of our lives, if it is constantly ephemeral, spasmodic, if it scintillates briefly before our eyes and is gone? This momentariness of the new de-mat art experience will, perhaps, negate the values of more conventional art-works: those of contemplative energy, poised presence, critical subversion and robust affirmation. Will de-mat art sacrifice substance to speed?
Discussing the harmful effects of speed and movement in a telematic environment, in Popular Defense and Ecological Struggles, the cultural theorist Paul Virilio asks, "And what if the primary goal of travel was not to 'go' somewhere, but simply to no longer be where one is? What if the aim of movement has become like that of military invasions or sports records: to go faster while going nowhere, in other words to disappear?"
This phenomenon of "going fast, but going nowhere" can be described, in the context of virtual art, as the art of the fast lane (as against the slow lane of conventional art, based on the display of physical art-works). In a speed-saturated virtual art scenario, artistic expressions would become even more aleatory and fractal than today. At the culmination of de-mat art there would be a total disintegration of the image.
Let us, polemically, accentuate this alarmist vision of the art of the fast lane. Here, technology augments the role of human agency so that the mind-body functions through prostheses. With so much free play on offer, the possibility of aleation, coupled with the sheer availability of visual and textual content, makes the viewers/users forget what they were looking for in the first place. When the viewer/user is clicking/jumping from one hypertext to another, s/he is always on the move, but motion is not movement, just as speed is not a guarantee of arrival, or even of discovery. Motion and speed become goals in themselves, and this is a dangerous development.
Eventually, this situation would lead to an atrophy of the senses. The producers and receivers of art will no longer function as autonomous beings within their mind-bodies; they would be handicapped without their machines. And now, with advances in biotechnology that may change our faculties through implants rather than prostheses, the enslavement to technology, and especially to telematics, would be complete, insidious, and binding. In this dromomanic environment (in Virilio's phrase; the word comes from the Greek dromos, meaning a race, a pursuit of speed) we may become a superhuman species, but we would lose the possibilities of wonderment that go with being human.
Telematics, a product of globalisation, is no longer just an option: it is a condition. Speaking for my own country, India, it has been estimated that there will be 4 million Internet users by 2003, to be followed by an exponential growth in their numbers. Already, after the opening-up of the Indian economy through the 'liberalisation' policies determined by the International Monetary Fund, we have witnessed the installation of several thousand roadside cybercafés across the country. Dromology has changed the pace, space and architecture of the Indian street, and the emergence of a cyber-community cutting across traditional boundaries of class, caste, gender, region.
Two Indian cities, Hyderabad and Bangalore, are considered the dream-destinations of the software industry. Consider Hyderabad, for instance: it was once the feudal capital of the Nizami kingdom and it became the capital of the province of Andhra Pradesh after independence. Today, it has been transformed by software dromomania into a postmodern city of virtual finance, high technology, spectacular entertainment and accelerated consumption.
Not surprisingly, the Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh, Chandrababu Naidu, is a dedicated Netizen. Recently, a popular magazine ran a story about his administration willing to respond to citizens' grievances sent by email. But what of the illiterate, the disempowered, those without access even to the usual channels of justice, leave alone a PC terminal or a lease-line? How do these people (who number in the millions) reach the Chief Minister at his email address?
In rural Andhra Pradesh, outside the capital Hyderabad, poverty and undernourishment are endemic conditions. Impoverished weavers, broken by the failure of the cotton crop and the lack of insurance, continue to commit suicide. Maoist guerrillas continue their armed struggle for the rights of the impoverished peasantry, and are engaged in a brutal war with the police, but Chief Minister Naidu would not embellish his website with such details: the website, like the entire image of techno-savvy, is driven by the redemptive vision of global capital; it is meant to attract foreign investment to the province. One need not spell out, therefore, that cyber-access has become a simulation of democracy in this case: an ersatz advertisement selling technological progress as democratic progress!
Neither cyber-access nor a nascent cyber-community translates automatically into emancipation. Commenting on the unequal geography of access in electronic space, Saskia Sassen talks of a new "geography of centrality and one of marginality." ("The Topoi of e space: Global Cities and Global Value Chains", posted on Nettime, 28 October 1996) Can the dromological architecture of cyberspace be made truly democratic? Can it become a virtual venue for artistic and political activism? This is where artists can, in the future, work as ethical and political agents of change by setting up counter-republics in virtual space, dynamising the dispersed cyber-community of the present into a coherent public force.
So that speed does not result in an implosion of space, these republics should aspire to being truly res publica, "things of the people". Take the fast with the slow, galvanise speed towards action and not passive reception. We should not allow technology to shape us. We should shape its contours and make it more humane. If we do not want technology to take over public spaces of protest and resistance, we will have to alter the dromological architecture of telematic space. Artists will have to explode the one-way lanes of image-consumption and articulate broader political and social needs through artistic strategies that enter public debates laterally. Artists will, perhaps, have to form alliances with activists, architects, scientists and cultural theorists.
They would have to set up multiple interfaces, getting out of even
the singular interface between the gallery and street which fascinates
so many artists today: already, it has become played out, become an
aestheticised act without political edge. In formal terms, artists
can use the device of interruption, which, as Virilio put it (in conversation
with Sylvère Lotringer, in Pure War), acts as punctuation
to the existent dromomania: "Interruption is the change of speed".
When art becomes dromomanic, as we have seen, the image, which is an irreducible unit of all art-works, becomes less dynamic, and gets dispersed and fragmented. Fast-lane art has yet a few things to learn from the old-fashioned slow-lane art: the image in the slow lane, by reason of its slowness, can develop substance, assert ethical weight and determinacy. Being a physical entity, to be approached in space and time, it provides within itself a pause for reflection, revelation and contemplative attention to the art-object. What it lacks in terms of reflecting the accelerated momentum and dizzying transformations of the telematic age, it makes up for in these ways.
The lesson that the slow lane offers the fast is this: the freedom promised by telematics will be realised only if there is actual material empowerment: telematic freedom must be positioned within a robust understanding of the political economy, or else it is doomed to being mere fantasy-play. Salvation lies neither in speed nor in inertia, then, but in their creative re-working. The art of the future will be modulated between the slow and the fast lanes, especially for former Third World countries; for us, indeed, such a modulation will be far saner than a plunge into the no-holds-barred, no-upper-limit traffic of the fast lane, enticing as it is. After all, artistic freedom without responsibility is like driving blind.
And finally, so that art does not become a 'no-exit' situation, we should embrace the Gandhian model of political resistance. Art, whether material or de-mat, should be inspired by the strategy that Mahatma Gandhi described as satyagraha, a truth-offering resistance that gives the self autonomy, not by isolating it within ideological judgements, but by inviting the world to share in the experiment of dialogue.