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Mario Cutajar

CYBER-PEASANTS OF
THE WORLD, UNITE!


Any attempt to gain a critical cultural perspective on a sprawling, metastizing entity like the Web is likely to turn into something that resembles its subject: a heterogenous jumble of loosely associated mappings, none of which covers the entire territory and any of which can suddenly blink out and be gone without a trace. The space of the Web, like interstellar space, is vast, nebulous, impersonal, infinitely fecund and incessantly in flux. As we colonize this space with varying degrees of success, sites come and go, veritable nodes in a network traversed at warp speeds through relays of servers. At the turn of a page while sitting at your computer in L.A. you shift from the New York Times Web site to the Vatican’s in Rome; sacred to profane and you think nothing of it.

Let’s dispense with the idea that the Web is a medium waiting to be vivified by the god-like hand of the Artist. The Web is a work of art like a city is a work of art. The odd thing about it is that this virtual city, global in its extent and more modern than any physical metropolis, has the organic quality of a medieval city. In Paris during the Middle Ages no one thought it was shocking that the main square of the city could be shared by an open graveyard and a market. And so it is with the Web, a labyrinthine bazaar, self-assembled compilation of library, brothel, forum for the wise and insane, corporate park, hacker paradise, juvenile playground, self-help oasis, and countless other things all sited cheek by jowl. Like the cities of the Middle Ages, the Web is densely populated, filled with pageantry, subject to the perpetual threat of pestilence, and indiscriminately nurturing of paranoia, scholarly discourse, superstition, heresy, fashion, commerce, frivolity, and engagement.

If I push the metaphor too far it breaks down. But there is a grain of truth in it, at least to the extent that the Web can seem a far more vivid, complex, and altogether stimulating space to inhabit than the dreary, car-ravaged, strip-malled cities we physically inhabit. And perhaps more to the point, by facilitating the coalescing of affinities, the Web serves as antidote to the anomie of metropolitan life; it is indeed the prosthetic replacement for the portion of a community destroyed by technology-driven capitalism. A great deal of what’s on the Web is as vile and banal as anything you’re likely to encounter on TV or at the mall, but with one crucial difference: the geography of the Web is of your own making. You make your own neighborhood and you populate it with whomever you care to associate with. Therefore, if creative choice is utopian, then the Web exists for each person as an utopia; moreover, a paradise to which anyone can contribute simply by building a site.

Contrast this with the post-industrial cities we inhabit, which are designed by no one in particular for no one in particular. What we suffer from today is not bad taste but the absence of taste, or better, the absence of the choice implied by taste. Everything is corporatized, focus-grouped, and demographed to death. This is why the occasional eruption of bad taste, or aberrant taste if you will--be it grafitti on a freeway or a televised performance by ex-Congressman James Trafficant--can be such welcome relief. Bad taste--to be distinguished from commodified and standardized banality--is at least evidence that the organic, the messy, and the dangerous, in a word the human, have not been completely obliterated in the name of hygiene and orderliness.

The Web returns to us a space in which idiosyncrasy can flourish because it is a space organically assembled by the accretion of individual impulses and tastes. Compared to the corporatized landscape we are familiar with, the Web is a virtual landscape of hamlets, villages, and shanty towns. This is too recent a development to gauge its full cultural significance, but there is irony to be relished in the thought that by globalizing the free flow of information the Web may ultimately be contributing not only to the resistance to globalization, but to networks that will sidestep it entirely.

Years ago I was challenged to respond to a writer who breezily dismissed the Web as insignificant pending its rescue by real artists. The rancor this academic arrogance released in me left this writer speechless. I have since harbored the hope that graphics and multimedia software, together with affordable digital devices and the almost effortless circulation of digitized imagery and text made possible by the Web will gradually undermine both the academic and curatorial establishments.

If the history of photography tells us anything it is that the creative potential of the Web will be realized by individuals more preoccupied with the medium and their idiosyncratic engagement with it than by persons with self-consciously artistic concerns. My favorite example here is Atget. While others were laboriously trying to turn photography into art by forcing it to imitate painting, Atget tirelessly walked the streets of Paris armed by the will to experiment with his medium and his heavy view camera. His pictures endure. Those of his pictorialist contemporaries are mere curiosities in the history of kitsch.

The larger issue in the long run is how the Web will affect the general art paradigm. The idea of art as a specialized activity--made, administered, curated, displayed, interpreted, protected, and restored by experts--is a modern aberration that reflects a larger modern aberration in which the division of labor has grown extreme. The problem is that art made by experts is of interest primarily to other experts. Paradoxically, in cultures where art actually means anything, it is not recognized as “art.” It is a power object, or a fetish, or an icon. Its aesthetic qualities remain transparent and only acknowledged insofar as they contribute something to the object’s psychic effectiveness.


Eugene Atget, “Ragpicker,” 1901,
photograph, 8 3/4 x 7 1/8”.



Marcel Duchamp, “Paris Air,” 1919,
etched pharmaceutical vial.
Modern art is replete with heroic but misguided attempts to endow the gallery-bound object with the primal power of “primitive” art through sheer expressiveness. Had similar attempts been made to train zoo animals to be wilder, they would not have been any more absurd. The Dadaists had the right idea: for art to live the idea of art had to die. And for that to happen, art had to become ubiquitous, or, to paraphrase Duchamp, it had to become as vital and involuntary as taking a breath of air.

With the digitization of image and sound and the power of the Web to disseminate them worldwide, it has become technically feasible to traffic in symbolic content outside of the confines of the academies, museums, and galleries. Digital cameras and cheap scanners are the pitchforks of our day. In the hands of an army of cyber-peasants, they might yet accomplish what legions of avant-garde artists failed to do, to re-embed art into the rituals of a community. If this comes to pass, the academies and the museums will succumb not to firebrands, as Marinetti prophesied, but to plain indifference.

For us prisoners of the late capitalist matrix, hope comes in the form of an online New Scientist interview with sociologist Teodor Shanin, inventor of “peasantology.” Shanin contends that at least half of humanity remains economically unplugged, participants in informal networks of exchange that economists can’t quantify and which they are therefore apt to dismiss as nonexistent. Notes Shanin, “The conventional view is that every country operates somewhere on a continuum between the state-run economy and the pure capitalist economy. . . . But the truth is that most of mankind lives outside this model.” Among the instances he gives: the vast numbers of Africans who own no land and seem to have neither steady jobs nor income but nonetheless manage to survive; the “unemployed” in Italy in the 1980’s who were actually quite busy taking care of their little family-connected business; unpaid Russian scientists who grow vegetables on research institute premises and use laboratory equipment to run their own businesses. In Shanin’s formulation, all these people are “peasants” of a sort even though many of them are only marginally involved in agriculture. “The core of the informal economy,” says Shanin, “is not peasant farming, but family and neighborhood relationships of mutual support.” And unlike the formal capitalist economy, which is relentlessly driven by speculation and the maximization of profits, the informal economy is concerned with survival and the maintenance of its network, of a social cohesiveness.

In light of the dot com meltdown of the last two years, and the failure of the attempt to transform the Web into a corporate enterprise, Shanin’s peasant model offers an alternative approach to unravelling the real potential of the Web.

The currently dominant paradigm defines the Web as an “information superhighway,” thus summarily incorporating it into the infrastructure of the formal economy. But the Web might equally, and perhaps more effectively, serve as a Ho Chi Min trail for linking the marginalized peasant economies that are unrepresented at global trade summits. A hint of the aesthetics that might emerge from these sectors can be glimpsed from all those now-you-see-‘em-now-you-don’t Web sites that serve the hacker, warez (pirated software), mp3 sets, all of which are tightly knit, underground communities with lingos and visual styles that look alien to outsiders.

These and other cyber “primitives” remind one that art has genuine potency as the mnemonic currency of a culture.

Back when I used to paint, I wanted to make pictures of nothing, or at least pictures that intended nothing even if they ended up suggesting something. I can’t completely account for this obsession but it derived, at least in part, from a desire to locate in myself an identity untainted by any connection with the disgusting exigencies of social existence. It was a hopeless undertaking and one that I eventually tired of. Around the same time I gave up painting, however, I came in possession of a low-resolution digital camera that a relative passed on to me when he got a newer model. The beauty of a digital camera from my point of view is that it enables you to uninhibitedly take pictures of whatever is in front of your face without troubling yourself as to its significance. Think Atget.


Mario Cutajar, “Untitled,” from the “Badhouse-
keeping” online artist’s book, digital photograph.

It turned out to be the ultimate Duchampian device, the perfect tool for taking pictures of “nothing.” And the relatively poor quality of the images reinforced the poverty of the content, which consisted of a recordkeeping of the kaleidoscopically shifting disorder I’m used to living with. After I had accumulated about a year’s worth of these pictures, I built a Web site (http://badhousekeeping.tripod.com) to accommodate them. This became my first artist’s book.

What I learnt from this exercise and the ones that have followed it is that the Web gives you a latitude of experimentation very hard to achieve in any other medium. You have complete control over how you exhibit your work, you have complete liberty to make an ass of yourself, and you have the ability to exhibit your images as an ever-expanding work in progress. With free Web space available all over the net, your primary investment is time. And the rigors of coding HTML have long been banished by applications like Microsoft’s Frontpage and Macromedia’s Dreamweaver, which let you focus on design and automatically translate your layout into HTML.

No doubt, all you art establishment types are shaking in your boots.