In the more impartial slot, between assimilation and resistance vis-à-vis computation, I consider the narrator to be the most progressive role. She is the storyteller, the situation-builder, the curator, the editor, the scenographist. All art can be narrated, but narration is not an obligation. Furthermore, all narration can be art, but it does not need to be.
The narrator frames art. In this sense, she is auxiliary to all other roles of the artist. However, she can still be considered a full-fledged, free-standing role because she creates a story about art that can in turn become an artwork in and of itself. Contemporary curators tend to separate themselves from the equation of art creation, but only do so to keep their position distinct and insubordinate. And while their role has been both popularised and scrutinised through the past few decades, making of them managers of the art world, there is more to the curator role than this reputation suggests. Thus, I assume them to be part of the artistic subset of the future for three reasons:
Firstly, because narration is, in the ever more pervasive hegemony of computation, presumed to be the last activity of mankind. The narrator makes stories because that is what humans do. In this sense, her role is inevitable. This makes the role of the artist as narrator not very different from any other role in the future. To put it in the word of performance artist Allan Kaprow in his 1966 “Manifesto,” part of his Essays on the Blurring of Art and Life:
The decision to be an artist […] assumes both the existence of a unique activity and an endless series of deeds that deny it. The decision immediately establishes the context within which all the artist’s acts may be judged by others as art and also conditions the artist’s perception of all experience as probably (not possibly) artistic. Anything I say, do, notice, or think is art —whether or not I intend it—because everyone else aware of what is occurring today will probably say, do, notice, and think of it as art at some time or another.^
Kaprow here expresses the future of art. The idea that if someone else thinks of something as art it is art reinforces the position of the narrator. To think of something as art is to narrate, and to narrate is to make art. Anything we do to make sense of the complex, random and infinite future—any normalisation—can then be considered art. The narrator, aware of this logic, uses this blurring between art and life as her canvas.
Secondly, because of her mediating nature, meddling with different stories of different sources, the narrator can create a new kind of normalisation; one in between assimilation with and resistance against computation. In this sense, the narrator is a figure of reconciliation, bringing together two different stances. She is able to do so because she understands the dynamics of computation, and the expectations attached to it.
Contemporary art, which tends to “think” in multimedia, intermedia, overlays, fusions, and hybridizations, more closely parallels modern mental life than we realized. Its judgements, therefore, may be accurate. Art may soon become a meaningless word. In its place, “communications programming” would be a more imaginative label, attesting to our new jargon, our technological and managerial fantasies, and our pervasive electronic contact with one another.^
The narrator is an extension of the managerial fantasies imagined by Kaprow in the 1960s. She guides, administers, and oversees communications between the artist and others. Art may become a meaningless word in the traditional sense, but it will be up to the narrator to let it die or change its meaning instead.
So lastly, the narrator will play an important role in the future of art because she will be the one who decides what is viewed as art and what is not. Artists have always been notoriously good at making a stand for their self-importance. Much of this has to do with the fact that artists are storytellers, in the position of proclaiming the significance of stories. Many of these stories are about the delineation of art. The artist of the future will have to deal with the fact that every story is art, opposing the non-narrative narrative of computation. Framing or unframing art will therefore be the main occupation of the narrator.
Contemporary artists are not out to supplant recent modern art with a better kind; they wonder what art might be. Art and life are not simply commingled; the identity of each is uncertain. To pose these questions in the form of acts that are neither artlike nor lifelike while locating them in the framed context of the conventional showplace is to suggest that there really are no uncertainties at all: the name on the gallery or the stage door assures us that whatever is contained within is art, and everything else is life.^
Yet the narrator must also question the necessity of this separation between art and life, between art and computation, and, so, ultimately between life and computation. If narration—the act of thinking, forgetting, selecting, and abstracting—is what divides us from computation, then it also divides us also from anything else. Therefore, narrators play an indispensable role in the future of art as curators, caretakers, and managers of its very essence.
‘After the revolution, who is going to pick up the garbage on Monday morning?
— Mierle Laderman Ukeles
Perhaps the most complex character in the list of roles is the maintainer. This role is at the centre of the grid, but in reality she might just be the least visible of all. As she is the embodiment of anti-heroism, her entire goal is to remain hidden and therefore irrecuperable. While all other roles carry some potential for heroism, the maintainer actively attempts to avoid it. Although it is impossible to fully negate heroism, the maintainer tries to disassociate from the torrent of transcendent thought that incites the desire for epic behaviour. This places her opposite from both the avant-gardist and the demolisher, but in a way also from the artisan and the saboteur.
The maintainer is imbued by the dream of repair. This dream is ambiguous, for it implies conservatism—upholding a status quo—and progressivism—renovation and renewal. To replace a part means to keep the whole intact, but also to introduce the new. The maintenance of a building epitomises this dichotomy: by renovating the building, preservation is enacted. It is renewed to its original state, perpetuated, but only by adding new and removing old. The maintainer initiates renewal under the guise of sustentation, or vice versa. It is this ambiguity that makes the maintainer so powerful. She can be completely submerged in the realms of computation, and yet she can always stay out of the way from recuperation.
Wim Cuyvers, the Belgian architect-forester, has devoted his life to the role of maintainer. Although preferring the title of “janitor,” after Nico’s Janitor of Lunacy, Cuyvers decided to embody maintenance as a principal role when he bought a piece of forest in the middle of the Jura Mountains, close to the French-Swiss border. From his refuge on the Montavoix, the mountain with a voice, he takes care of the forest and all the buildings and roads in it. His mission, as he states himself, is to “maintain and only to maintain, there is no goal after.” To maintain is not to keep something fixed in place, but to acknowledge its indefinite nature and the temporality of things and to move with it instead. Maintenance—from the French word maintenir, literally “to hold in hands”—completely blurs the lines between art and life, as Kaprow proposed. Clearing the roads after a storm, cutting dead trees, repairing a rickety shack just to prevent it from collapsing entirely, putting rocks back after the rains wash them away—these are the acts of the maintainer, according to Cuyvers.
For performance artist Mierle Laderman Ukeles, who wrote the Maintenance Art Manifesto in 1969, maintenance can be considered an auxiliary mode of actions, one that negates the expectations of progress. It is not a time of progress or progression, but of continuation, day in and day out. “Maintenance is a drag; it takes all the fucking time (lit.),” she writes. Ukeles produced the manifesto in the time after the birth of her first child, when her time was split between being an artist and being a mother, a creator and a caretaker. Displeased with others’ perception of her artist work as productive and her maintenance work as unproductive, she drafted the manifesto in “a cold fury.”
I am an artist. I am a woman. I am a wife.
I am a mother. (Random order).
I do a hell of a lot of washing, cleaning, cooking,
renewing, supporting, preserving, etc. Also,
(up to now separately I “do” Art.
Now, I will simply do these maintenance everyday things,
and flush them up to consciousness, exhibit them, as Art.
I will live in the museum and I customarily do at home with
my husband and my baby, for the duration of the exhibition.
(Right? or if you don’t want me around at night I would
come in every day) and do all these things as public Art
activities: I will sweep and wax the floors, dust everything,
wash the walls (i.e. “floor paintings, dust works, soap-
sculpture, wall-paintings”) cook, invite people to eat,
make agglomerations and dispositions of all functional
The exhibition area might look “empty” of art, but it will be
maintained in full public view.
MY WORKING WILL BE THE WORK
The maintainer negates the demands of computation as much as she complies with them. For instance, the architectural renders of buildings always incorporate moments of of families walking about, of businessmen rushing to their jobs, and of children frolicking, but never the moments of maintenance—embodied by janitors, repairmen, window washers—nor roadwork or sewage drainage, scaffolding or construction signage. The ideal incorporates no maintenance. Yet in reality, these buildings need repair like any other. The maintainer performs her tasks of maintenance despite being excluded. She is ignored and praised simultaneously, and that is precisely her strength.
Yet the maintainer is an extremely difficult role to adopt. Firstly, because it requires a complete endorsement of the motives of maintenance. To maintain is to truly repair, and not to pretend to repair. A maintainer cannot impersonate. Secondly, because the necessary banality of maintenance makes it complicated to present as art. To document or report on the actions of maintenance, as is expected of artists, shifts the position towards other roles, like the avant-gardist. The entire idea of maintenance is that it stays undocumented and unpresented, unappreciated yet indispensable. To communicate the acts of maintenance seem to undo the entire intention, making anti-heroic deeds heroic again.
The constructivist movement of the early Soviet Republic, which explored the use of architecture, art, and design to reflect modern industrial society, had a great deal of experience with this tendency of maintenance to drift off towards avant-gardism. Although their intentions were initially to spearhead a progressive movement in the spirit of Bolshevism and its communist ideology, they quickly surmised that in order to fully embrace the modes of production, so centrally placed in all their endeavours, the final step in this exploration would be to become producer instead of artist. In her book on The Artist as Producer, art historian Maria Gough asks the following question:
What happens when a Constructivist finally reaches the place of his or her aspirations? What happens, that is to say, when a Constructivist manages to enter the industrial environment, rather than simply express a utopian desire to do so?
Gough uses the example of Latvian-Soviet artist Karl Ioganson, who went as far as to assume a job as factory worker in a metal manufactory, from 1923 to 1926, to respond. She frames him as one of the only Constructivist konstructors who was actually able to penetrate the industrial due to his ability “of avoiding being defined by management as an artist.” Others, like, for instance, Osip Brik,were less successful. Brik wrote that:
Indeed, artistic labor and factory work are still disunited. The artist is still an alien in the factory. People treat him with suspicion….They cannot understand why he needs to know technological processes, why he needs information of a purely industrial nature. His job is to draw, to make drawings—and the factory’s job is to select suitable ones and to stick them onto a ready-made, finished product.
The basic idea of production art—that the outer appearance of an object is determined by the object’s economic purpose and not by abstract, aesthetic considerations—has still not met with sufficient acceptance among our industrial executives: they think that the artist who aspires to penetrate the “economic secret” of an object is poking his nose into somebody else’s business.
Ioganson does not make the tactical mistake of arriving at the factory with the proposal to establish a production laboratory or to introduce avant-garde notions of production art. Instead, he hides by becoming a worker, simply and wholly.
Gough points out the irony of the fact that Ioganson, the constructivist who has spent the most time in the industrial environment, is precisely the one about whom published historical records have been the most silent. About his work as a konstruktor, little is known, and the entire, lengthy story of the episode had to be reconstructed from defunct Soviet labour archives because his work was industrial labour, rather than artistic in the traditional sense. This in itself answers Gough’s original question about what happens to the artist who enters the industrial environment: he or she disappears or he or she does not enter at all.
The maintainer fades away into the processes of normalisation, and more specifically into the processes of computational normalisation: below layers of management, statistics, and archives. She dissolves into the records.
Can the maintainer, then, still claim the position of the artist? In other words, can an artist be an artist without claiming to be one, and without making the work part of public record? As for presentation, I believe that it is the only way to frame maintenance as art, yet it is only in combination with the narrator—and not the avant-gardist—that this can be done in a sensible manner. The maintainer must remain maintainer. In this sense, Gough is Ioganson’s narrator. But as artists’ roles are interchangeable at all instances, the artist of the future can embody both roles simultaneously. And this will be a matter of necessity. Because when the world is completely automated, governed by computation, we will have narration to account for the interactions between humans. But in our interaction with computation, there will be only maintenance.
History was being recycled almost as soon as it happened.
— David Lowenthal
In the world of Everything, Now, any vision for the future is redirected into a configuration of repetition. As the databases of computation fill up with recollections of the past, memories become the primary sources for building this repetition. Near-perfect reconstructions of past events, no matter how close or far back in time, are available to us at any time and in any situation. They make reliving the past not only a cognitive enterprise, as an expression or dream of nostalgia, but also a physical act: a reenactment.
For the artist, this evolution means that the position of reenactor, the agent of nostalgic expression, can become a valid role. The reenactor is a choreographer, a director of past movements and former occurrences—someone who controls the stories, created out of the selection of vast data describing the past and someone who steers the unbridled glorification of nostalgia and produces the historical lores and tropes of the roleplaying game we all play.
In this sense, the reenactor is a conservative role, as it avoids the alteration of historical accuracy. The reenactor reconstructs time, and transports the people involved back in time. Everything is set in the past, and every player is temporally frozen in the chosen period. But as we have seen, every story is a selection, and so it is told as is requested by the reenactor.
Reenactments initiate a return, but only one that reaffirms the current moment. Reenactments are therefore reactions to our contemporary predicament, but only for a limited amount of time. For most reenactments, this offers the soothing assurance of the outcome of events. When reenacting historical battles of Waterloo or Gettysburg, participants do not question how they ended. And as no one involved in these battles is still alive, there is hardly any discussion possible once the story is made up.
Re-enactments differ from enactment above all in that actors and audiences, like historians, know the future of the past portrayed.
The English artist Jeremy Deller used the position of the reenactor for his 2001 work The Battle of Orgreave, reconstructing the 1984–1985 miners’ strike in South Yorkshire, England. Deller brought together ex-miners and ex-police officers to act out their violent clashes of some seventeen years earlier in a peaceful but realistic military-style reenactment. Because of the engagement of people involved in the original incident, the event turned into a strange reminiscence, including contradicting accounts of events, heated arguments, and also reconciliation. Without pressure from the heat of the moment and external causes and motivations, the entire conflict seemed rather silly or absurd. The ire driving battle between the miners union and the police, however real at the time, now proved to have been obviously misdirected: workers pitted themselves against workers rather than against the apathetic government and the Thatcher administration that enabled it. The entire event became a play, rather than a struggle, with the players always aware of the outcome.
Nevertheless, in reenactments, participants strike a nostalgic note, reliving the motives of the past and watching how these motives unfolded into action. Deller used reenactments to critique the neoliberal policy of 1980s England and to gather insights on the outcomes of this policy. His work is as much a reconstruction of its subject as it is a deconstruction of its own context.
But not all reenactments are written in this mindset. In general, reenactments are nostalgic trips to a delineated past. In historical amusement parks or heritage sites, reenactments are used to transport visitors to a day in the past. But the actors, working to create the illusion, play the same role over and over, reliving the same day every day. In Bokrijk, a cultural heritage park in Limburg, Belgium, actors reenact a day in the life of a typical 1913 Flemish villager, inhabiting the role of the pastor, the teacher, or the farmer, and interacting with each other and with the audience. Their lives are banal, their stories simple, and the setting mundane. They do not fight heroic battles or defend epic motives. They do not make a stand nor critical gesture. They just are, living their 1913 lives.
As computation stores and processes events nearly instantaneously as they unfold, it becomes technically possible to reenact a story mere seconds later. Events are captured from multiple angles, involving numerous witnesses, human and non-human, distributed through a wide array of channels, and stored in vast databases, ready for anyone to reenact. Imagine, then, the possibility of reenacting the mundane, as in Bokrijk, of fifteen minutes ago. Computation gives us the tools to do this: to reenact a meeting, a garden party, a restaurant dinner; to live and relive the history of a day ago.
The role of the reenactor therefore becomes very interesting when we try to reenact the stories most affected by the progression of time. In these instances, it becomes evident that reenactment is a futile return in time and in no way an exact recreation of the past. Like the Battle of Orgreave losing its original political relevance but gaining another, the reenactment of recent history and the fleetingness thereof show the irreversibility of time and the inevitable change that computation tries to hide. One article on Deller’s work sums it up quite vividly:
The sight of the giant Virgin logo behind the battling police and miners dispelled, for a moment, the illusion that we were back in 1984, at a pivotal and emblematic moment in the war between trade unionism and Thatcher’s monetarism, wondering if the pickets might break through the thick blue line of policemen protecting “scab” lorries delivering coal to the coking plant.
Reenactments take place in the now. To include the context of today in the illusion of yesterday is unavoidable. Like the Virgin logo dispelling the mirage, context can be seen as a powerful tool to snap people out of their nostalgic voyages and show that their longing for return is impossible.
Were we to reenact an iconic football match, we would have to plot out the exact course of every movement of every player in relation to the ball for the illusion to hold. Every hesitation disrupts the reconstruction. A reenactment of the attacks on the World Trade Center would require the construction of the twin towers anew. And for the reenactment of the Lunar Landing, we would need to shoot a rocket at the moon. This brings us back to Funes, trying to recreate the days of his life:
He was able to reconstruct every dream, every daydream he had. Two or three times he had reconstructed an entire day; he had never once erred or faltered, but each reconstruction had itself taken an entire day.
But then, the role of the reenactor can be exactly that: to show that reconstruction is not possible, and that reenactments are excerpts, summaries, or fantasies entirely. We relive the past because of the cancellation of the future, but we all the while avoid the reality of the progression of time. It is up to the reenactor to use the tactics of reconstruction to reveal this impossibility.
Defining different artistic attitudes towards automation and contemporary technology
Here an excerpt from the doctoral thesis of Lodewijk Heylen. The entire work can be read here
Principles of Precision
Searching for the origins of our fascination for accuracy and predictability, Principles of Precision aims to bridge the gap between artisanship and technology. The project focusses on the strive for manual, mechanical, electronic and digital accuracy throughout human history, and projects this history onto our current computational age.
Early try-outs of the research has resulted in a performance that took place at violet art space in January 2023, staging the principles of Withworth’s Three Plates Method to achieve a perfectly flat surface. This technique was used in the early days of industrialization as a benchmark for mechanical manufacturing and accurate tooling.
By including the story of the method and its impact on our contemporary society into a performance, the interaction with spectators can generate a discussion on the topic. The coming months will be used to further elaborate on the theatralization of the project.
Research into scenarios on the topic of the ambiguity of the ‘maintainer’, as dealing with both preservation and renewal at the same time. The goal is to develop a body of work dealing with the role of the maintainer, and to enact tasks of maintenance to reflect the ambiguous attitude towards computational thinking en technology.
Everything, Now was originally a proposal for a performance parcours, complementary to the public presentation and defense of the doctoral thesis ‘Everything, Now’. Multiple non-stop performances were to take place during the presentation, and reference several speculations on the artist of the future, made in the thesis.
Like one big reenactment of a possible future, Everything, Now, presents an eerie, yet recognisable scene of art production in times of all-encompassing computational influence.
The performance illustrated here depicts a setting of workers continuously building a path whilst others are removing it. Like a snake biting its own tail, the path meanders the terrain in a never-ending race of completion versus removal.
Unfortunately, due to Covid19 the performance parcours had to be postponed.
Posthuman Crafts Studies
In collaboration with Patricia Domingues and Anneleen Swillen
Digital technologies, today becoming increasingly ubiquitous, have the potential to have both strong positive and negative influences on human society. Indeed, humanity, threatened by climate change, pandemic and war, could benefit from alternatives to current ways of being, and machine learning and other types of artificial intelligence offer some paths forward.
However, societies driven by these limited forms of computational thinking – societies in which digital technologies are idealised as the solution to all issues – also risk excluding the necessary space for imagination and alterity, instead developing into societies of normalisation and homogenisation. These societies also promote a divide between conceptions of nature and culture, bolstering problematic views on the relationship between humans and their natural and artificial environments.
The proposed research aims to explore what it means to be human in a technological society in times of ecological crises. Drawing on research in the arts and Posthuman Craft Studies, we aim to speculate, mediate and explore worldviews both within technocentric paradigms and beyond the technocentric.
ISSUE 1: Technocentric, transhumanist and humanist perspectives risk reproducing solely anthropocentric worldviews. Philosopher Francesca Ferrando explains that the concept of ‘human’ emerged not from ideas of inclusivity but through several processes of exclusion (2019, 87–89).Likewise, according to the philosopher Tobias Rees, modern renderings of humanity’s defining qualities rely on arbitrary lines drawn between humans, machines, plants and animals (2020, 110). Employing Posthuman Craft Studies, this research project responds to such anthropocentric positions, acknowledging our entanglements with a more-than-human world through an embrace of both human and nonhuman plasticity. We begin by recognising that humans live in interdependence with environments and the artefacts we produce. Inspired by Rees, who argues that intelligence can be seen as a series with many entries of which humans are merely one (Eunic, 2020),we engage a posthuman craft methodology that invites and validates broad definitions of intelligence and sensitivities, including the sensorial, tacit, digital, artificial, geological, and biological.
ISSUE 2: Substantial research within technology is often carried out from utilitarian perspectives and aimed at practical, industrial, applications (1.c.). Moreover, as anthropologist Tim Ingold argues, the natural sciences, which favour the fixed, the proven, the universalised and the categorised, present the world as made up of predictable, inert matter rather than as a multitude of emergent and complex systems(2018, 9).The arts must respond to and complement instrumentalised research – not support linear progress, but reveal an urgent necessity for exploring local and bodily voices in technology. It is important for everyone to understand how A.I., through categorising and labelling, is already becoming a political force and a force of epistemological violence in its attempts to make the world readable and controllable (Crawford 2021, 230). Artists can help in understanding and making visible these technologies’ processes, questioning such political forces and imagining alternative futures. Digital culture has planetary consequences. Thinking with more-than-human care, as proposed by technology theorist Maria Puig de la Bellacasa, generates relations of empathy with the living world (2017, 95).
ISSUE 3: Technology is often thought to inhibit relations with the sensorial world. This research is premised on philosopher of technology Peter-Paul Verbeek’s argument that ‘technology does not block, but mediates engagement, by inviting some forms and inhibiting others’ (7, 2000). Research in the arts looks for other kinds of relations: intimate and sympathetic relations with and mediated by technologies, supported by bodily experiences.
ISSUE 4: Although technology and craft are inherently connected and deeply embedded in societal practice, in societies that define progress as linear, technology and craft seem to be antagonistic. Additionally, technocentric worldviews are affecting art schools as well as craft disciplines and discourses.Modern technologies can be seen as interrelated with the complexification of crafts. Both crafts and technology originate from the same desire and curiosity to handle, organise and interfere with the material world. However, technological discourses currently lack an artistic philosophy that englobes all these kinds of crafts and technologies. Such philosophy contributes to broadening views on technology, helping researchers to find other modes of technological thinking. The emerging field of Posthuman Craft Studies offers new ways to reflect on these excessive but also exceptional technological times. It urges arts educators to be part of this evolution without forgetting about their rich past, encouraging students to critically engage with these influential algorithms. Arts education can care for the past while anticipating and shaping technologies’ futures.
Übermenschlich is a research theme that revolves around industrial concepts within a post-industrial society. It concerns the transcendence of human achievement by human thought. Übermenschlich questions the progression of humanity through machines and the temporal and spatial scale of changes caused by technological an intellectual development. It is an attempt into understanding the human urge to imitate, improve or harness the forces of nature.
Industrialisation has shaped our environment and our way of thinking. During the Industrial Revolution, norms and standards were developed no longer in proportion to human achievement (macro level). A similar development in the other direction during the Technological Revolution, caused a transcendence in depth no longer perceivable with human senses (micro level). These historical developments have prompt the standards for optimisation, the ideology of endless progression and (hyper-)individualism within our capitalistic society. Through this technical and economic thinking, standards have become increasingly important. They offer a rational vision of the world in which everything, even future events, can be explained, predicted and prevented. However, humanity is repeatedly faced with the paradox of planning, and uncontrollable factors such as our indissoluble subjection to natural conditions. The consequences, such as global warming, economic crises, natural disasters or epidemics are becoming increasingly palpable.
Reenactment of a Demolition
Research into the irreversibility of time and the permanence of destruction
On July 15, 1972, modernism died. With a dramatic implosion, the urban housing project of Pruitt-Igoe, St. Louis, was demolished. Less then 20 years after construction the 33 buildings, established according to the principles and ideologies of modern architecture, were erased from existence. Some 45 years later, the city of Brussels decides to transform its waterfront neighbourhood into a luxury compound. Its marketing slogan: Modern Urban Living.
They say history repeats itself. I say it never has, until now. The engineers of commerce in our capitalised world have copied the vocabularies of computation, which conflates past and future. Automated markets quantify the landscape with the implicit assumption that things will not radically change or diverge from previous experiences. That which is gathered as data is modelled as the way things are, and then projected forward. That which is hard to quantify and difficult to model, that which has not been seen before or which does not map onto established patterns, that which is uncertain or ambiguous, is excluded from the field of possible futures . Repetition has become a trademark.
Reiteration, replication, life as a roleplaying game. The happenings of yesterday become the theatre of tomorrow, as we glorify extreme nostalgia and frame it as the ultimate post-automation human endeavour. The reenactment moves away from medieval times and civil wars and into the lows and heights and trivialities of our times: experience the fall of the Berlin Wall, Woodstock, the Apollo 11 mission, a memorable football match, a school shooting, a dull meeting, a garden party, the demolition of a building, ...
This research scans the limits and possibilities of the reenactment as a lifestyle, now and in the automated future. I will present and try-out a script for the reenactment of the Viaduct of Merksem (Antwerp) defining the conditions of recreating destruction.