Media @ McGill

The Dream of Dematerialization: Art, Labour, and Information Technology since the 1960s

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Saelan Twerdy


As conceptual art introduced new roles for artists and new models of “art work” in the postwar era, the growth of information technology instantiated new models of politico-economic power and organization in society. The “dematerialization” associated with conceptual art also maps onto large-scale shifts in the operation of globalized capitalism, particularly the migration of manufacturing labour out of affluent Western countries and towards the global south, along with the rise to dominance, within the West, of finance, technology, and service industries over the last several decades.

My dissertation approaches Conceptual art’s dematerialization of the art object as the outcome of a persistent idealism – that is, both a utopian political position and an intellectual orientation towards the abstract and cerebral. This dematerializing mode represents the surprisingly tenacious hope that art might be able to free itself from elitism and co-optation by rejecting physical objecthood in favour of the reproducible and immaterial form of information. At the same time, this idealism has persistently occluded the ways that dematerialized art practices actually parallel (and sometimes seem to have invented or anticipated) new modes of control and exploitation.

The aim of this project is to look backwards from the current dominance of network models (and reflections on them by artists) to earlier articulations of such forms, and to track the history of their evolution – not to highlight what is new, but to situate recent developments in art as part of a long and continuous development of overlapping, mutually constitutive forces in aesthetic discourse, technological development, and political economy.

My study is organized into five chapters:

As Chapter 1 explains, during the Vietnam War era, a broad fascination with cybernetics, systems theory, and communication theory among artists and curators prompted a spate of exhibitions and events themed around the relationship between art and technology between 1966 and 1971, some of which framed conceptual art as the product of a nascent information society. However, these ventures received a mixed reception, largely due to the perceived proximity, in the public imagination, of high technology with the military-industrial complex.

Subsequently, the association of conceptual art with technology or post-industrialism waned. Instead, its legacy was hitched to the rising profile of critical theory (and, eventually, to theories of postmodernism) in Western academia and art schools from the later 1970s into the 1980s. My second and third chapters approach this shift in two parts.

Chapter 2 looks at the elaboration of dematerialized art practices in the 1970s and the persistence of the information model of art (and of McLuhanesque media theory) in so-called “provincial” areas where networking, international connections, and up-to-date information were essential for participation in the contemporary art world. In particular, this chapter focuses on the network of artist-run centers that emerged in Canada in this period and the various collaborative art groups (N.E. Thing Co. and General Idea), publishing platforms (FILE magazine, Avalanche, and Radical Software), and video art activities that connected these venues to developments abroad.

Chapter 3 focuses on the 1980s, in which a resurgent market for painting (what art collective General Idea memorably termed “the rematerialization of the art object”) was challenged by post-conceptual practices based in a critique of representation through the photographic image. This chapter focuses on the centrality of the “dematerialized image” to theories of postmodernism, with reference to the influence of Jean Baudrillard on the New York art world between 1983 and 1987 as well as the precedent set by Jean-François Lyotard’s pioneering exhibition, Les Immateriaux, at Paris’ Centre Pompidou in 1985.

Chapter 4 discusses and compares two important tendencies in the art of the 1990s and early 2000s that have been treated separately in various histories of this recent period: the practices that Nicolas Bourriaud grouped under the heading of “Relational Aesthetics” and the first generation of internet artists and hacktivists associated with the “” tag. Though there was virtually no contact between the artists, curators, and critics associated with these two groups, I argue that relational art and early internet art shared numerous key concerns and that both were, in different ways, responding to the same set of cultural conditions: specifically, the rise of the internet as a mass medium and the explosion of globalization within the post-ideological political climate of the years following the fall of the Berlin Wall. Both also contributed significantly to the resurgence of dematerialized art practices and the reassessment of conceptual art and its legacy in this period.

Chapter 5 covers the period from the turn of the millennium to the present, attending to how the introduction of Web 2.0’s array of centralized services (Google, Facebook, Youtube, Twitter, Tumblr, etc.) in the mid-2000s enabled the permeation of the internet into all aspects of daily life and the ongoing subsumption thereof into an accelerated, data-driven form of capitalism. The art that emerged in response to these conditions has been termed post-internet art, and this chapter tracks its development between 2009 and 2015. Primarily, I am concerned with how this art initially appeared to restage a form of dematerialization indebted to the precedent of conceptualism, advocating decentralization, audience participation, and non-hierarchical forms of display and circulation. Ultimately, however, post-internet art demonstrated how networked forms of value-extraction have eroded the distinction between materiality and immateriality. I explore this question in relation to post-internet art’s dalliance with Object-Oriented Ontology and Speculative Realism as well as its (often ironic) investment in the supposedly liberating potential of Silicon Valley-inspired tech-capitalist culture.