The Politics of Information


Five Words in Green Neon, Joseph Kosuth, 1965

by David Joselit

We live in a world of Wikileaks and cyber-terrorism where information is wielded as both a weapon and a currency. Most recently, Edward Snowden, a former contractor for the American National Security Agency, leaked documents revealing that the United States tracks its citizens’ phone calls by compiling metadata records such as phone number and length of call. It should come as no surprise that governments follow the lead of Walmart, Amazon and Google in exploiting Big Data. Indeed, nation states depend on their special right to harvest information from their citizens in order to establish sovereignty. There can be no taxation without identification, and there can be no government without tax revenue. What is new about our present conditions is the malleability — or to use an aesthetic term, the plasticity — of information. It is now easier than ever to collect and store data, but it is also easier to copy, disseminate, and change its format. The consequences of this plasticity, as Snowden demonstrates, can be catastrophic for some, and wildly liberating for others.

Contemporary artists theorize the plasticity of information, and develop aesthetic responses appropriate to the Age of Google — a moment when inventing new content has become less significant than searching for and aggregating existing information. This situation — what I call “the epistemology of search” — has a history dating back to at least the mid-twentieth century.

In the late 1960s, with the rise of Conceptual Art, a strong link was established between art and information. Artists like Sol LeWitt, Joseph Kosuth and Lawrence Weiner claimed that artworks may assume the form of written propositions as opposed to objects — and that it need not matter whether such propositions are acted on or not. These artists and many others around the world adopted the idiom of bureaucratic administration — particularly text and photography — to make often absurdist or tautological statements.[1] Kosuth, for example, exhibited enlarged dictionary definitions of words like “painting” and “original” as surrogate paintings, and Weiner proposed simple performative instructions, like “Two Minutes of Spray Paint Directly Upon the Floor from a Standard Aerosol Spray Can,” in place of the actual production of art objects. These works demonstrated that the same “thing” could assume many different formats: a dictionary definition could be on a page or a wall, a painting could be an action, or its residual effects, or it could remain pure potential.  More recently, the dual conditions of digitization (which makes virtually any content susceptible to multiple reformatting), and globalization (which has expanded the scope of communication networks exponentially), has lead to a new scale and speed in the plasticity of information.

In response to these conditions, the French artist Pierre Huyghe describes art as “a dynamic chain that passes through different formats.”[2] This definition would seem mystifying if one continues to believe that artworks are static objects with fixed and eternal contours as opposed to, forms of currency which stage multiple symbolic (and commercial) transactions. Huyghe himself has made works in which the plasticity of information is dramatized by treating “A film [as] a public space, a common place….not a monument but a space of discussion and action.”[3] In The Third Memory (2000), for instance, Huyghe reconstructs the events of a notorious 1972 bank robbery and hostage situation in Brooklyn by John Wojtowicz on which the 1975 film Dog Day Afternoon, directed by Sidney Lumet, was based. When Lumet selected the story, it had already been filtered through several types of media (television, on which it was broadcast live, and publications such as Life magazine). Huyghe’s reconstruction is an attempt to capture Wojtowicz’s own memories through reenactment — but he staged them on a replica of the fictionalized movie set. The Third Memory thus charts a dynamic chain of formats—leading from a “true” story reproduced on television and print, to its fictional reenactment in a major Hollywood film, to its hybrid docu-drama reconstruction. Populating his work with such a profusion of different formats establishes “a public space, a common space,” by representing a filmed event as an ongoing crisis of representation — of endless reenactments and revisions.[4]

In this work Huyghe explores a mode of consumption that is now so familiar that we hardly notice it anymore. We are accustomed to seeing the same content — for example, a notorious bank robbery — in cascades of different formats. We live in a world of “news cycles” where information is pumped through different media circuits over and over, changing its dimensions to conform to a particular outlet. We pinch images on our smart phones or tablets to make them bigger or smaller; we click on them to send them to friends, we download apps to reformat them, and so on and so on. Until one has seen a young child — perhaps not even able to speak yet — try to swipe forward an image on a television set and express her frustration that this outmoded technology does not allow for such manipulation, one has not really comprehended the malleability of contemporary images. All this might seem little more than technological gadgetry until we recall the example of Snowden. If control over information is directly linked to sovereignty; if freeing information is one of our contemporary modes of guerilla politics; and if compiling information as a means of improving marketing and forecasting trends is 21st-century mode of capital accumulation, then art’s capacity to articulate the grammar of information’s plasticity is part of its age-old value in making sense of experience and representing the conditions of life in order to evaluate and understand them sensually and philosophically. In today’s terms, this can mean slowing down images in order to comprehend their behavior.

Thus far, I’ve emphasized art’s proximity to information, but it’s equally important to recognize that art is a special form of knowledge — one that interrupts easy consumption while allowing, indeed encouraging, reflection on the social and political ideologies of “the epistemology of search.” My recent book, After Art explores the special material power of art. In the neighborhood of New York City where I live (which is adjacent to the Chelsea gallery district), new hyper-luxury buildings are routinely marketed by linking amenities for the 1% with the cultural prestige of art. In one such development, Walker Tower, a renovated 1929 skyscraper, the promotional advertisement appended to its construction scaffolding promises 53 luxury residences with “museum-quality engineering.” This phrase is virtually incoherent in joining “engineering” with “museum” but what matters for the developers is not logic, but the emotional association of uniqueness and quality that museums carry ideologically.

Indeed, all over the world, from Bilbao to Abu Dhabi to Beijing, new contemporary museums are being established in order to consolidate local elites, and broadcast a global image of cultural progressiveness. Commenting on the Qatar Museum Authority’s staggering budget of some $1 billion per year for art acquisitions, the New York Times recently declared, “it seems clear that, just as Qatar has used its oil riches to boost its influence in the Middle East with ventures like arming Syrian rebels, its wealth is also being deployed to help the country become a force in the world of culture.”[5] It is rather breathtaking — and enormously revealing — that arming Syrian rebels and building a sophisticated cultural infrastructure can be so seamlessly joined in the same sentence.

Paradoxically, artists, critics and historians too often disavow the art world’s capacity as an economic engine and its political power as a marker of national development. The reasons for this are obvious: if one admits the real economic and cultural power of the art world, one must also give up on the enduring myth that works of art remain apart from that world, existing in a realm of detached criticality or extra-economic authenticity. In actuality, the art world has grown enormously in the post-World War II period and in its combination of knowledge production, public presentation, and patronage of powerful elites, it has begun to resemble institutions of higher learning on the one hand, and the entertainment industry on the other. It seems to me that art’s worldly power, which tends to be veiled (or literally obscene), can be harnessed better and to more progressive ends by artists.

Ai Weiwei, the Chinese artist who was detained for 81 days in the spring of 2011 in response to his outspoken criticisms of the Chinese government, is the art world’s Edward Snowden. He exploited his notoriety as an artist — and a blogger — to investigate and publicize the Chinese government’s responsibility for and cover up of the disastrous collapse of shoddily built schools in the Szechuan earthquake of 2008. Ai uses the power of art for more than personal expression. He makes the plasticity of information political. While every artist confronts different restraints and opportunities, my goal in writing the book is to demonstrate that all artists can wield the special power of art — not just its aesthetic effects, which should never be forgotten or underestimated, but also its institutional power as an ideological force and its capacity as an economic engine. For me the “after” in After Art refers to art’s effects in the world, after it leaves the site of production. Art, like information, lives through circulation.

Cover image One and Eight – A Description, by David Kosuth, 1965


[1] See Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, “Conceptual Art 1962-1969: From the Aesthetic of Administration to the Critique of Institutions,” October  55 (Winter 1990), pp. 105-143

[2] George Baker, “An Interview with Pierre Huyghe,” OCTOBER 110 (Fall 2004), p. 90.

[3] Ibid., p. 96.

[4] The preceding passage on Huyghe’s The Third Memory is drawn from After Art (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013), pp. 48-49

[5] Robin Pogrebin, “Qatari Riches Are Buying Art World Influence,” New York Times, accessed July 25, 2013

About the Author:

David Joselit is an art critic and Carnegie Professor of History of Art at Yale University. He has worked on pivotal moments in modern art ranging from the Dada movement of the early 20th century to the emergence of globalization and new media over the past decade. His most recent book is After Art.