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by David 'Jhave' JOHNSTON (Canada), 2005


In the heyday of "relational art,"1 or of communications aesthetics,2 at the end of the 1990s, critical consensus held as article of faith that an art work was no longer an "object" set before the spectator, but a proposition within which to communicate.

While I visited the MACBA3 with a London professor, the paintings we walked past held little weight in contrast to my colleague's evocative report on the Weather Project,4 which she had just "seen" at the Tate Modern. Danish artist Olafur Eliasson's installation - a miniature Sun radiating spectators in its sweet glow - had sparked in her a range of reactions far removed from what a conventional museum elicits: "I stayed half an hour under that artificial sun, I felt good, weightless.... I was lying down among the others; we drifted together." Such, more or less, was how she described it to me. What better illustration of relational art can one find than this simultaneous - and perhaps illusory - sharing of the same sensation?

An art critic will have little difficulty describing an installation like Eliasson's: describe the installation, and then describe the visible effects produced on the spectator, and you will have given a pretty good idea of the work. Discussing etay, David Jhave Johson's work, can raise an entirely different, and quite fascinating set of issues, which, lying at the heart of digital arts criticism, may turn out to be totally incompatible with relational aesthetics. On loading http://etay.ca, what does one see that fosters communication? What does one see that can forge a link?

The first screen opens on a deformed portrait - of the artist one presumes -, a Bacon-like distortion, one might say. We're asked to click, and we do. An urban setting appears, inelegant concrete, pale-lit buildings, and cement blocks on which two windows come to life; it's like a construction site, or a land on the brink, or on the verge of something still more chaotic. Web-surfing instincts quickly lead us to discover controls that modify the work: a choice of setting/background from a series of buttons at the top of the screen; a choice of artist - several have participated in etay - and of their art work from two pull-down menus. Our reading takes various paths, according to desire, or receptiveness.

We then come to ask ourselves: what have we perceived of the work? How could we describe it to someone who hasn't seen it? More to the point, how might we discuss it with someone who has? Will we have seen the same thing? The artists' contributions are so varied - and generally of high quality, a sign that net art is becoming visually interesting -, and the possible combinations so numerous, that it is almost certain no-one will ever see the same piece. All we can say for sure is that the URL etay.ca exists; on loading it, one sees a first screen showing a distorted human face. That is the extent of our certainty regarding etay. All the rest is subject to variations, and possibly to debate.

The fact that the screen is divided between two windows, in which we can choose to view two different artists, or two different works by the same artist, or even twice the same work by the same artist displayed in different temporal sequences, should not imply a comparative study: that isn't the author's concern. One doesn't compare apples and oranges.

On the other hand, that one can make sparks fly and create metaphors, through "the haphazard encounter on the dissection table of a sewing machine and an umbrella,"5 is all but certain! But what will we have shared with other spectators? How can we accept that we can speak of a work that the other will certainly not have apprehended in the same continuum? Does that not contradict the purpose of any act of communication?

To complicate things further, note that etay readers may add as many windows as they wish; windows, round and mobile, that float about the screen like soap bubbles. The lightness, the irony perhaps, of these "soap bubbles" may yet prove to be the means of escaping the vicious circle of the object/subject dichotomy. While the two "required" screens give etay the appearance of constant duality and confrontation, of a dialectical hub, the "soap bubbles" that anyone can add as they please seem to tell us that "yes, communication is a difficult act, and all the more difficult in that objectivity doesn't exist, only the subjective is certain." None of us has seen the same etay. And we will certainly not be talking about the same piece. But is that not precisely something we can learn of etay? the digital work is certainly not static; like the soap bubbles that change course on a whim, it obviously lies between states, in intervals and supple interrelations, in the hiatus, the off-kilter; it readily and impishly plays the part of a mercurial bob on the waves; it asks us, in the end, to accept the unsaid, the approximate, impressionistic; in short, it drives away, perhaps for good, the illusion of the object and the positivist dictatorship of objectivity. That is precisely why it demands a different approach, one that no dogma has yet managed to define.

Have you in fact witnessed the whimsy of these "soap bubbles"? Is it something we can share?

1 : Nicolas Bourriaud, L'esthétique relationnelle, Dijon, Presses du Réel.  

2 : Eduardo Kac, « Aspects de l'esthétique communicationnelle », in Connexions : Art, Réseaux, Media. Annick Bureaud et Nathalie Magnan, eds. (Paris: École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts, 2002).  

3 : Barcelona Museum of Contemporary Art.  

4 : www.art-en-jeu.ch/expositions/eliasson.html  

5 : (Isidore Ducasse, a.k.a. comte de Lautréamont (1869), Les Chants de Maldoror, chant sixième, Le Livre de poche, Paris, 1963, p : 322.  

Xavier Malbreil
(Translated from French by Ron Ross)


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