Dirk Van Weelden, Jorinde Seijdel 1 Jan 1998

Lizareebiekoe Ahobschkoh

Today, most art still conforms to a cultural model in which the artist regulates his dealing with the historical and topical cultural environment by making public a form that is definitive and resists communication. The position of the author who fits into this picture remains engrafted onto the figure of the romantic artist, who takes up a position opposite the public, but whose atypical existence is precisely the basis of his presumed ability to express the truth of many.

However, not all works of art behave like complete, 'deaf' forms, which are clearly defined in space and time, unchangeable for the context. There are ongoing art projects with an open end, works which assimilate their context so consciously and smoothly that the authors' work consists of generating a context rather than setting up a work within and against a context. The dynamic networks resulting from these forms of authorship often turn out to have sprung from a fictional, narrative, source.

The Reconstruction of the Nose

Over the last few years, besides his work on his paintings, Manel Esparbé i Gasca (Barcelona, 1959) has also set up a large and mysterious project which he calls 'a sensory opera' and has named The Reconstruction of the Nose. The mainspring of this project is a script in which he describes an opera-like total spectacle in various acts, which appeals to all the senses, including the organ of balance.

We all know those photos of the horribly mutilated victims from World War I. For example, the photo of the man in profile whose nose was sliced off by a piece of shrapnel. When the opera begins, we find ourselves in a lecture theatre in Madrid in 1973, where a certain Alejandro Fredo Grossi, in fact this victim's son (although the relationship is not explained until later), will hold a lecture in his capacity as renowned reconstruction surgeon. He has devoted his life to the development of medical techniques to repair the damage from such injuries as that sustained by his father. But due to an incident happening during the lecture, he receives a vision of World War I, after which he falls through a window and, ironically, his own face becomes mutilated. After this fall the scene switches to various episodes from the past and the future.

The central character is a man pursuing victory through science, but accidentally ends up mutilated like his father, despite all his scientific accomplishments. Esparbé is neither a composer nor a writer. He is a visual artist. He has called on a host of composers to write parts of the necessary music. Poets, writers and journalists are also involved in the project. Artists are building the décor and designing the costumes. The chairs and the china used for the feast, which is part of the opera and will be shared by actors and audience, have also been specially designed and made for this spectacle.

But when will the premiere take place? Nobody knows. In fact, The Reconstruction of the Nose has been going on for some time. There have been performances, exhibitions and manifestations which could be part of the opera. But the greater part of all these activities must be regarded as a preliminary study or version, spin-off, preparation or training. This work in progress could continue for many years to come, and at the same time, there is the impression that this intermittent series of manifestations is in fact the opera itself. It is not, therefore, a total work of art in the romantic sense, which presupposes a definitive Form, a performance in which everything is presented at the same time, and in perfect gear.

The Reconstruction of the Nose is a projet-fleuve, in the form of an artistic network. Within this network, Esparbé is a first among equals, an artists among artists, but the Author of the project as a whole. It is not as if he has asked the dozens of others involved to execute his plans. Within the framework of the script, everyone is given a high degree of autonomy. And many manifestations of the opera are in fact works of art, texts, and music, which are not included in the script. But they are still pieces of music, poems, images, designs and installations which were made on request, or strictly speaking, commissioned. In practice, it is not even necessary for the participants to have a clear idea of the whole. Esparbé is the connecting element, he embodies the mysterious coherence which is not explained anywhere, and the motivation of the proliferation of images, music and text.

This sensory opera in the making creates a sphere in which disciplines of art, oeuvres, artistic views and genres incorporate each other's rules. This happens unemphatically, inscrutably, is far from planned, and is never dictated by an explicit theory, or objective. Esparbé leaves much to chance and makes allowances for the circumstances and the idiosyncrasies of those involved. With Esparbé as chaos manager and the script as a guideline, this is a feast of the self-organisation of converging elements.

You could almost call it an artistic trend without dogma, a cult phenomenon. This is because the sensory opera is independent of any institution: it is a nomadic project which takes place in theatres, exhibition galleries, private houses, and empty factories. There is no publication constantly registering the progress of the project. Because there are so many participants, the audience, in the traditional sense of the word, only plays a modest role. Most of the visitors and audience are people involved, their friends, acquaintances and children. It is difficult for the unsuspecting spectator to discover any coherence in this strange collection of objects, images, and (musical) performances. And those who nevertheless are touched and become fascinated enough to speak up and ask questions, will soon become involved in the project as well. It is a characteristic of this sensory opera that it draws in anyone and everyone who comes close to it. The sensory opera has nothing to gain by a crowd of anonymous consumers.

More and more young artists experience the role of the modern artist, who creates his autonomous masterpieces in 'splendid isolation' only to expose them to publicity, as unsatisfactory and limiting. A project such as the sensory opera undermines this individualism and dependence on publicity. Not only does the sensory opera lead to interaction between various artists and forms of art, but it also acquires a dynamic of its own, behind the backs of the participants.

This is the product of a group, with an open end; the only available agenda is a story, Manel Esparbé's story, which is so complex and enigmatic that it is never felt to be disproportionately authoritative. What was perhaps once promoted by a magazine or art-ideological movement (generating a context in which the work of individual artists, musicians and writers took up a position, with regard to each other and on a broader cultural plane) happens here in, and by means of, the work itself. The sensory opera, as a network and intermittent art-work-in-progress, is its own context.

Living inside the machine

The Apollo II landing on the moon in 1969 was one of the first perfect 'media events': a happening which became reality thanks to its live broadcast on TV. For who would have believed in this daring walk on the moon, with only a bit of sand, a few blurred photos and some fantastic stories to go by? But at the same time, people began to doubt the authenticity of media-broadcasted events: according to some, the 'space trip' was a fake and had been recorded in a studio.

What is broadcasted is real, everything else is subject to speculation - but this cannot be said without being aware that verification of the images is virtually impossible. Or in other words, images can only be real as images. Several decades after the spectacle on the moon, cult star Courtney Love indicates the point at which we now find ourselves: Fake, it's so real. I am beyond fake.

Throughout the world, a great many 'nerds' are connected, practically day and night, to the Video Conferencing environment on the Internet. Not only do they chat to each other directly, but they also transmit a constant flow of 'live' video images of themselves, which usually show them sitting tidily at their webcam-equipped computer. So, at the same time, on their own screens, they receive similar images from the other participants. CU-See-Me: voilà the illusion of total solidarity and connectivity.

At this time, some of these 'work lurks' have probably become acquainted with a remarkable creature called The_Living, which manifests itself from time to time in their shared network space. They could probably scarcely believe their eyes, when they caught sight of The_Living at the bottom of a swimming pool, or paddling in a swan boat on the Fulda river in Kassel, or camping in apparently awful conditions, yet still merrily communicating via her watertight lap top. The_Living can also regularly be sighted in a more normal situation, at home sitting at her computer. 'Live', is it all 'live'?

For the voyeuristic and exhibitionistic Internet community, The_Living must be the embodiment of the dream of seamless integration between the physical and digital world, where the rigid image of 'man-at-the-computer-screen' transforms into 'man-behind-the-computer-screen', and man and machine fade into each other. At long last, life as portrayed in William Gibson's Idoru.

The_Living is a digital 'persona', an artistic project in progress, in which various levels of reality are tested and linked with each other. But this unconditional life 'on line' is also a story that unfolds in the process of being told, and one in which everyone who notices the heroine, or is noticed by her, plays a role. The adventure not only writes itself through the digital encounters and 'chats' between The_Living and others, but also includes a travelogue: during the course of a year, The_Living visits all the crucial venues of digital culture, so that she also draws physical places and persons into her on-line performance, her 'live' fiction drama. Philip K. Dick, Star Trek, Silicon Valley, the Human Genome Project, Biosphere 2 and Nasa here blend together into a digital mythology, where we could also encounter Japanese virtual pop stars and European hackers.

The question of whether this could be the fulfillment of the utopia of some vague West-Coast cyber prophet, or rather the interactive screen adaptation of a novel à la Gibson, fades into insignificance beside ''The_Living'''s claim to authenticity, that obsession of a media culture yearning for 'reality' and 'live'. But the main thing is this: the images she sends into the world are 100% real, simply because they exist, because they are (can be) believed in. And ultimately, this question of 'really live or real life' is equally applicable to the participants in a Video Conferencing environment: because they, too, are in fact play-acting and allow their behaviour to be influenced by the camera and the 'audience' observing them.

The_Living is 'hyper living'. If she is fake, then it is mainly in the sense of fiction, of the story that writes itself, organises itself, and follows a kind of logic; fiction that takes on the form of a network rather than that of linearity. Those who encounter The_Living become part of this, but not without introducing a new story line or an unexpected turn.

Somewhere in a corner of the screen, The_Living was also visible on TV. And sometimes she pops up within the exclusive context of the visual arts. The_Living wants to be seen, to leave her mark, to imprint herself into the experience of others. And at the same time, she allows herself to be filled in by others. But she remains totally illusive, an image, after all. What she does is 'reality hopping'; she opens up realities for the benefit of the network The_Living. The_Living has made the change-over final: she is now the 'ghost in the machine'.

The_Living is a project of the artist D.A. Solomon



The_Living and The Reconstruction of the Nose

Although Solomon's project takes place in the virtual world of the Net and that of Esparbé in the physical world, they still have much in common.

Regarded as 'works', both projects are unquestionably unstable and discontinuous phenomena. Both are processes within a social network, and have an open end. The author directs, but relies totally on the participation of many others, in a variety of capacities and functions. Moreover, there is the fleeting character of both projects: their actual manifestations are temporary parts of the whole. Only comprehensive documentation and edited presentation could one day, in retrospect, provide an overview of the whole.

What is also remarkable is that, within both projects, the individual contributions forfeit some of their autonomy. First and foremost, these are made on request, or as a result of provocation. They are reactions to the fiction designed by the initiators (in Solomon's case, the digi-persona, The_Living, in Esparbé's case, the story of Alejandro Fredo Grossi). Furthermore, all these contributions influence each other, which leads to a situation whereby rules and meanings can change at any time. Because both projects have an open character, there is a constant influx of new participants, styles, and works. There is plenty of room for unforeseen happenings, encounters, and ideas.

Both projects centre around, or if you prefer, start from, more or less narrative fiction. Not a ready-made, definitive text, but a half-finished product, a script, which only comes alive through the interaction with the others and their additions and amendments. As artists pursuing a context rather than a work in the traditional sense of the word, they are indeed the directors, but it is the unforeseen, the self-organising and self-generating capacity of the process they have set in motion, that they find most valuable in their projects. They cannot plan and determine everything, nor do they wish to.

In both projects, the fictional mainspring (digi-persona/opera script) functions as a mystification which can only partly be understood and discerned by the other participants. This seems to be intentional: it is stimulating rather than discouraging. It is a mystification which defines the domain within which the project takes place, without being overly rigid or predetermining. This illusiveness of the fictional mainspring eventually throws the other participants back onto their own resources; they have only themselves to rely on. You cannot adjust to something illusive and inscrutable. You can only take part 'as yourself'. Thus, the network which is the project develops around the initiators.

What are the differences between the set-up of The_Living and The Reconstruction of the Nose? In a way, they seem to mirror each other. Solomon's project is based on the personal contacts and adventures of a digi-persona who lives on the Net, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. There is scarcely any question of form, of editing to condense the material. She communicates senselessly and endlessly, or so it seems. But the way in which The_Living does this, her behaviour (play-acting), the illusionary situations in which she finds herself, and her carefully prepared visits to selected locations (laboratories, companies, universities, etc., in connection with the development of digital culture) certainly give shape to the flood of messages and images that flash to and fro. It is a slow movement, totally immersed in open personal interaction, towards a story. The project simply screams for retrospective editing, montage; Solomon herself calls it an investigation, an experiment. She points ahead, to the moment when, having lived as a digi-persona for a full year, she will have gained insight into her experiences. That moment will call for condensation, intensification, a framework for her insight; she will probably use material from the project.

With Esparbé, there seems to be movement in the opposite direction. His sensory opera is no experiment. With him, the narrative is literally the beginning: the opera script, the fictional story of Alejandro Fredo Grossi. The script is there to call into being and to stimulate the network of The Reconstruction of the Nose, only to be changed, mutilated, complemented and outshined by that process. Where Solomon initially gives her participants a free hand and only guides them by the way she plays her game, Esparbé sets his stamp on all the contributions right from the start, by explicitly calling them invitations. But while The_Living gradually seems to be developing from a series of encounters into a story, the sensory opera is changing from a story into a series of events and collaborations.

Solomon seems to be aiming at making a work of art out of a year's 'real' virtual life. Esparbé could be doing the reverse: developing a series of connected events among working, living people, from an artistic plan.

Story and network

The significance of such art projects as those of Solomon and Esparbé is that they turn the work of art into a network, not in the conceptual sense, by turning it into a closed matrix of elements, but rather, in the social sense of the word. Whether it is digital or physical exchange, that is the material out of which the framework of each project is built. This undermines the traditional characteristics of the work of art. Is this visual art, theatre, cinema, performance? Where does it stop being art and does the surrounding life begin? Where does it stop being 'the work' and does the response, the reflection, begin? In how far are the participants also the audience? In how far can there be an audience which does not take part? Is there no sliding scale in terms of authorship between the initiators and participants?

What is fascinating about The_Living and The Reconstruction of the Nose is that they render these questions totally irrelevant, or, let us say, academic. This has everything to do with the fact that they are so rich, so full of information, images, suspense, texts, characters. These are sovereign projects in the sense that they do not need a museum, gallery, or art journal, to take place, be viewed and enjoyed. Thanks to their network form, they can ignore the institutional art world and its media. They are small arks, these Author's contexts, in which all manner of artistic expression, communication, celebration and knowledge become culturally significant.

What kind of artist is the author of such a project? In any case, he/she breaks up with the familiar image of the modern artist as the atypical, visionary, individual who creates original, autonomous works to express the universals of mankind. That is a romantic relic. That type of Author is becoming extinct. Barthes anticipated the development he witnessed by stating: the author is dead. What happens to a dead man? He becomes a ghost, who will come to haunt us. The authors of The_Living and The Reconstruction of the Nose are not present in their work as the Creator, but rather, as the Spirit. Their authorship does not create ex nihilo, is not a projection of their person, is no form of almighty control: they are the embodiment of the coherence, the meaningful dynamics between the elements of the project. They have created and planted the seed, they are directing and supervising the growth, they make room for the unforeseen events, make the connections.

An art project in the form of a network is a dynamic matrix of people, material and information; but an author as the initiator seems to be insufficient to guarantee success. Precisely to enable him/her to step back and set the process in motion, there is another prerequisite which is fundamentally different from a network. The fictional, narrative seed appears to be a crucial condition. It is as if the digi-persona and the opera script are functioning as the control programme, thanks to which the network can function. There is a kind of mutual dependence between the stability, intensity, and linearity of the story, and the multilinearity, transience, and self-organisation of the dynamic matrix.

The art of the network

What is there still possible in the field of art, beyond the institutionalised, conservative, reality culture? Plenty, surely? It is where life begins. There are plenty of tears and cracks in the system - which is not nearly as coherent and seamless as it appears to be. The hyper-reflective museum world, the prevailing poverty in experience, could well be by-passed and disrupted by a hyper-active form of art: a kind of art which does not necessarily seek the highest degree of visibility and publicity, which is not caught up in a fixed physical and social form, but rather, loses itself by surrendering, unfolds itself in time and lives on through its ability to fan out in life, to pulverises, to shatter, which makes it as uncontrollable, illusive and unstable as life itself.

Such a work of art evades perception in the traditional sense: its physical manifestations are in fact only a temporary part of the actual work. Within the established culture, this means a shadow existence and the risk of remaining unnoticed. But such works are not aimed at that culture: they go straight through it, creating a context of their own by appropriating existing contexts, places, disciplines and styles, by swallowing them up, destructuring them, undefining their limits, and temporarily bending them to their will.

However, the audience in the traditional sense is being sidelined here: it is not in the nature of such art to attract an audience, but rather, to create small groups of participants and accomplices who, in their turn, also make accomplices: in the dynamic network which develops in this way, context and work are more or less the same. Thus, perceptions and realities can be investigated and tested on the basis of ever changing identities and relationships.

Such a network also puts the conventional, mediating, critic in an impossible position: critical statements are automatically absorbed by the work, comply with the rules of the project, become part of it, rather than dismantling it, or putting it on a pedestal. This is a kind of art that does not need to be represented, but rather, is present itself and is its own mediator.

Such art does not confront everyday reality, does not, in a forced way, try to link up with it or imitate it, but, by its active, practical nature, really goes ahead at full speed: it is multilinear, ambiguous, chaotic, fleeting, influenceable by coincidence and the moment, and self-organising. But at the same time, it generates a story, is a form of fiction by which to escape the banality and indifference of our existence. Such art does not need to be preserved or protected - it can, after all, scarcely be located as a thing - it grows rampant as a new life form.

translation OLIVIER / WYLIE