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<eyebeam><blast> Emergence or Submergence: Which Precedents for Posthumanity?

In the past few days Susan Hapgood and Kate Hayles have both introduced
intelligently argued discussion threads. But entwined around those two
threads is a third, insidious thread that I want to tease out into the

Susan is absolutely right that art of the 1960s can serve as an
invaluable precedent for understanding art on the Web. Minimalist,
Conceptual, and Performance Art offer more useful models for online art
than artforms that may appear closer genealogically, such as film, video
installation, or kinetic sculpture. (I would even venture that art of
the 1960s and 1970s explored more radical approaches to copyright,
distribution, and ownership than digital art has yet to achieve--though
it may catch up in the near future.)

Pointing particularly to Fluxus, Group Material, and similar artist
collaboratives, Susan expresses interest in the parallel way that
"virtual communities of like-minded individuals can work together to
produce work, often suppressing their own egos in 
the process." At first glance, this model of communal creativity seems
to sit well with Kate's vision of "the posthuman as a distributed
cognitive system, with human and non-human components," in which "the
idea of emergence is foremost--the thought that complex systems, when
recursively structured, can spontaneously evolve in directions their
creators did not anticipate." Put these two ideas together, and it's
easy to slip into a vision of the Web as a collection of individuals who
manage to set aside their petty agendas and groove to an emergent group

Neither Susan nor Kate may have had this particular vision in mind, but
I know plenty of people who do--and it sounds to them like utopia. But
not to me. Emergent structures form when identical simple
elements--bromide ions, water droplets, termites--get together to make
surprisingly complex ensembles--eddies, clouds, hives. But individual
humans don't get together and make emergent systems--they're emergent
already! When groups of humans set off in a single direction or rally
around a single banner, I'm not reassured, I'm worried--because that's
*submergence*, the collapse of a rich, complex system into a simple one.
"Virtual communities of like-minded individuals working together
suppressing their own egos in the process"? Sounds more like Microsoft's
networked serfdom than the disagreement-filled Internet I know and love.
Do we really want a "distributed cognitive system" like that? 

If I were to turn to an artistic precedent from the 1960s for collective
digital art, I would look not to group gropes like Carolee Schneemann's
orgiastic _Meat Joy_ but to social instigations like Douglas Huebler's
_Duration Piece #15--Global_. In this work Huebler offered $1,100 for
the return of Edmund Kite McIntyre, a bank robber wanted by the FBI.
Huebler mandated that any collector who bought the piece would incur the
responsibility for paying off the reward should McIntyre be brought to
justice.  Rather than submerging the varying agendas and social roles of
the participants, _Duration Piece_ contrasts and complicates them,
ironically binding the artist and connoisseur to a social obligation
while implicating the FBI and McIntyre in an aesthetic endeavor. (One
can only assume the artistry of the piece was lost on the unfortunate
Mr. McIntyre.)

Anytime a group of people presents a united front--on the Internet or
elsewhere--someone's perspective is being repressed.


Jon Ippolito
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