Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Notes from the Academy of Distributed Aesthetics

William Burroughs sits on a chair near a tombstone that says BUR-ROSE holding a shotgun in his lap.

It's the cover image to the book The Job (Interviews with William Burroughs). Toward the end of the book, Burroughs writes:
Consider the IS of identity. When I say to be me, to be you, to be myself, to be others -- whatever I may be called upon to be or say that I am -- I am not the verbal label "myself." The word BE in English contains, as a virus contains, its precoded message of damage, the categorical imperative of permanent condition. To be a body, to be nothing else, to stay a body. To be an animal, to be nothing else, to stay an animal. If you see the relation of the I to the body, as the relation of a pilot to his ship, you see the full crippling force of the reactive mind command to be a body. Telling the pilot to be the plane, then who will pilot the plane?
This quote comes from the section entitled Academy.

I read this as an onlooker, someone isolated on an island not far from where, back in the 60s, they shot the the opening sequence from Gilligan's Island (Gilligan's Island was the first place I had ever heard of that peculiar identity we refer to as THE Professor). Some 35+ years later I too am occasionally identified as THE Professor and still, even in island isolation, get email that reflects the bureaucratized agenda of institutional life. Receiving these Orwellian transmissions from an alien memory world I once may have passed through, I cannot help but wonder: do I embody the academic standard? Did I ever embody it? ("To be a body, to be nothing else, to stay a body. To be an animal, to be nothing else, to stay an animal.") And besides, what does it mean to be a Professor in network culture, i.e. someone who actively adapts to and plays with new media technologies and environments that often times challenge conventional academic practice? Let's face it, Comrades: no man is an island.

A simple question quietly making the rounds in some circles of AcademiaLand these days is: "Who needs higher education when you already have Google?" A very simplistic question yet one that if you poke in a little deeper reveals some shakiness in the stability of the institution's perceived mission. The question then feeds into other related issues particularly when it comes to the role of a higher arts education in the age of online social networking and easy to use (and pervasive) mobile media apparatuses.

Professor VJ has been (uncharacteristically but nonetheless heavily) involved in a self-study program review for an art department of close to 1000 participants. To sample from the review:
As more new media technologies are developed, new forms of art and visual communication provide cultural content for these technologies. For example, the proliferation of mobile media devices, the software applications that run them, and the creative content that gets distributed to them, are becoming inextricably connected to the online social networking culture that communicates through use of digital photography, digital video, digital animation, electronic writing, and other forms of visual communication. The creation and analysis of innovative forms of visual art and communication is crucial to the development of our culture.
For Professor VJ, that excerpt above is more than a sample from a long-winded attempt at justifying an art program's existence. My sense is that you can Google all you want and, by all means, collect as many "friends" on your Facebook page as you can, but there is still a lot an artist-researcher who plays with persona construction as part of their principal investigation into a hybridized art and writing practices can bring into the cultural mix.

While facilitating the development of new interdisciplinary media arts programming at the nexus of digital art and textuality, I out of nowhere become The Professor, even as I am still writing and directing my feature-length "foreign films" and live A/V postproduction sets for whatever performance venues lie ahead. For example, in my Graduate "Remix Culture" and "Integrated Arts" seminars, we are steadfastly investigating innovate ways to successfully hybridize more traditional approaches to practice-based research with digitally interactive forms of pedagogy that can be distributed via the networked space of flows.

While conducting my sessions in the seminar space, I am supposed to be the IS of identity (to loop Burroughs back in) but the "precoded message of damage" this IS contains is, as Burroughs suggests, "the categorical imperative of permanent condition" and one that the animal body will try to resist as it naturally performs its function as a flux persona role-playing its next iteration of unconscious embodiment. What does this mean in simple language? Professor VJ, the principle investigator of remixology and postproduction art in networked performance, resists the IS of identity and turns to his animal body as the source for unconscious creativity even while triggering mega-hits of meta/data (i.e. new source material) for each pedagogical performance.

Later, after the semester is over and the grades have been marked, The Professor will have slipped away to an alternative poetic universe where he will chill out with Mary Anne in his Hawaiian beach condo while composing his new artist ebook or putting the finishing touches on his new limited edition DVD soon to be FedExed to a gallery or museum sponsor somewhere in the "real" world. This is what The Professor gets paid for...

Or let's just say that that's the bread and butter base of activity. On the side, he also provides some lifestyle coaching, hypnosis, and creative workshops in "conceptual persona construction":

Of course, this blur practice of mine is not just limited to constructing my own Professor identity. When I first entered the academy in 1999, I was intimately engrossed in what I look back on as the net art phase of my hybridized art-writing practice. The net opened up many opportunities beyond the simple "marketing presence" or "portfolio ad" that most artists still see as the only use of the network/web interface. The computer was no longer just a tool to create new works of art or even draft new articles and chapters for forthcoming books. It was also a medium in its own right, one that could be conceptually / aesthetically / physically experimented with to create new media forms of art. The nervous excitation of waking up every day and knowing that anything could happen, that your trajectory as an artist-writer could go through rapid metamorphosis as you pushed the medium further than it wanted to go, was exhilarating. For five years solid, it was hard to do much of anything else.

For me, the years of intense net art making and theorizing were roughly 1996-2002 (just under six years actually). After that, I moved into live A/V (audio-visual) and multimedia performance, directing feature-length films, developing new forms of mobile phone art, making DVD / surround-sound installations, and writing and designing original artist ebooks. All the while, I have kept writing and publishing my literary novels, serving on various editorial boards for literary and art publishers, and have maintained my role as publisher of both Alt-X and the electronic book review.

Why do I mention this?

To start with, let's hear more from Burroughs in his Academy:
Whatever you may be, you are not the verbal labels in your passport any more than you are the word "self." So you must be prepared to prove at all times that you are what you are not. Much of the force of the reactive mind also depends on the falsification inherent in the categorical definitive article THE. THE now, THE past, THE time, THE space, THE energy, THE matter, THE universe. Definitive article THE contains the implication of no other. THE universe locks you in THE, and denies the possibility of any other. [...] The whole reactive mind can be in fact reduced to three little words -- to be "THE." That is to be what you are not, verbal formulations.
Somehow, most likely due to the fact that the academy opened its doors to me while I was admittedly immersed in the excitement of helping pioneer a new form of art that was challenging the more conventional "individual artist as genius" model most art programs still rely on to sustain their outmoded studio art formulas and curriculums, I am still seen by many as THE net artist. This despite the fact that over 80% of my exhibitions and performances over the last five years have nothing of consequence to do with net art (not that net art is dead, even though I wrote a satire that suggested just that as part of my keynote address at Transmediale in Berlin in 2001 -- you can read it in META/DATA -- unfortunately, some of THE more humorless of the net.artists and their cheerleaders got themselves in a tizzy over it all, as if net artists were puritan animal bodies that could not poke fun at themselves).

Of course, none of this surprises me. How could it? It's happened so many times before. For instance, there are those who only know of my zine scene editing back in the 80s and to them I am THE zine guy. To those who know I received my MFA from Brown University and studied hypertext fiction and theory and ended up using that experience as a base to begin my investigation of online art and writing, I am THE hypertext guy. Because of my on-again off-again international tour as a live A/V artist there are now some in Europe and Japan who think of me as THE Amerikan VJ guy. And recently I received snail mail (yes, snail-mail!) from someone who very clearly sees me as THE avant-pop theory guy.

My mobile phone artworks are just now starting to circulate too. Is there any question that after I soon begin exhibiting Immobilité there will emerge another ad hoc audience that will typecast me as THE mobile phone film guy?

Personally, if I was going to wrestle myself in the mud and get down and dirty with the IS of identity, I would have to say that I am presently struggling to once again become nothing but the embodied rhythms of poetic illumination being discovered while creating, i.e. the animal body unconsciously walking along the shores of Kailua Beach conjuring up his next role-playing performance.

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