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Information in the Expanded Field: a Case Study
Information-Society, -Technology, -Arts, -Overload.
The supposed shift into the “Information Age” is a shift that’s hard to think outside of. It’s something that we’re told occurred quite a while ago now, sometime between WWII and the first successful packet sent over the Darpanet, yet it remains a promise for the future. The term “Information Age” suggests that the most important thing being produced now is information in the form of knowledge, data and formulas as opposed to things made of bronze or steel. Likewise, the economy is said to be one trafficking in services, like data processing and telemarketing, rather than the manufacturing of cars and kitchen appliances. Of course, as some (if not enough) have pointed out, the complimentary myths of the “Service Economy” and “Information Age” are dependent on a highly selective field of vision that excludes the simultaneous existence of “older” economies. The “Information Age” is the surface of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis where the machines of production are working well beneath the surface.
Tonight (7 November 2003), I happened to be flipping through the nightly news programs on the major US television networks, changing the stations as commercials came on. Not so surprisingly, the main stories covered by each network were exactly the same in subject and perspective – they were even chronologically presented in similar order by the white, male lead anchors. Tonight, it was U.S. casualties in the ongoing war in Iraq and new bombing activities, a South Carolina high school’s militant drug raid on students, rising rates of employment, and high beef prices. Another not-so-surprising observation: the commercials were the same across the networks as well – cell phones and car insurance being the most consistent. Without going into yet another discussion of the homogenization and consolidation of media resulting from corporate mergers (Bill Moyers’ NOW show is a good starting place for that discussion), viewing this sameness of information within what is considered to be a highly competitive industry presents some interesting problems in terms of our evolving relationship to mediated knowledge and what to do with it.
“The system had become closed, had become a massive machine for reproducing its own assumptions, had reached in the orbital model a condition of stasis.”
Peter Halley, in “On Line,” meditates on what he sees as the completion of the modernist project to subjugate Nature. Using the visual metaphor of the line, Halley textually illustrates the completeness of the archive, of the ordering of information into linear constructs that are as insulated from Nature as the copper wire used to upload this text to the Web. For Halley, the reproduction and distribution of information “through endless systems of linear technology” represents the closing of the circuit, the final process where Culture looks at Nature and sees itself. The semiconductor is the atomization of the same Cartesian logic that produced the National Highways linking horizontally expanding housing developments and mini-malls, now freed from the constraints of urban necessities.
It’s interesting rereading essays like “On Line” that were conceived before the Internet hype became mainstream, before non-linearity became pedestrian. The notion of a linear logic dominating technological discourse runs so counter to most of what has been written about new information technologies since the Web that it is almost hard to even consider seriously. Recent events have shown that systems are far from closed and secure, be it the spectacular terrorist attacks of 9/11 or the more mundane ubiquity of PC viruses and worms that keep managing to find holes in Microsoft’s security. Such events also make apparent the major fallacy of Halley’s dystopic vision of the present: namely, it continues the euro- and US-centric belief in superior centrality within its critique of Reason. An assertion that Culture has become completely self-referential does not even make attempts to engage interests that have not profited from Western centrality, and most likely have a stake in de-stabilizing it.
Halley’s conception of the linear is based upon formal, visual phenomena, rather than the use, function and cultural significance of technology and communication. There may be an overwhelming power directing how IT is developed, but I would argue that it’s not to be found in the visual logic of the line, but in the ideological forces of social relations and the aesthetics of control. From the vantage point of 2003, it’s much more obvious that economic power need not appear linear, or in any particular fashion for that matter.
This is not to say that Halley’s critique, on loan from Baudrillard and Virilio, is not useful. The acknowledgement of history and ideology is completely needed in dialogues about technology and Nature. But, I would argue, there are more productive forms of critiquing our relationship with information, ways that consider the gaps in the circuits and what can be let in through them. There are many directions that such a discussion could go, many things that could be built upon, but here I would like to consider some of the recent artworks by Ricardo Miranda Zuñiga in the context of information and linearity.
Miranda Zuñiga’s works are appropriate for such a discussion, I believe, because, for one, information distribution and representation are such obvious parts of their production. Secondly, these works utilize the technology Halley saw as the ultimate expression of the “closure of the system” – the personal computer. Miranda Zuñiga’s use of the computer represents the state of globalized information as overdetermined by a complex set of beliefs and structures, yet a system that, because of its complexity, remains open to modification and disruption. Using various representational tactics, from digital games to interactive sculpture and video, the subjects addressed range from illegal immigration and labor to the ecological impact of global development. There is a meta-text that runs through all the works however. Zuñiga does not seem to be concerned with the “authenticity” of data, but with the very processes that determine what is considered data to begin with. What information should be considered relevant and significant regarding decisions, including those both personal and organizational, appears to be an politically charged question in Zuñiga’s works.
For “Public Broadcast Cart,” a work completed for the Wireless Lab Park Days in New York City (September, 2003), Zuñiga constructed a mobile radio transmitting station on a common grocery cart. The transmissions occupied three spaces: the audible space of the cart itself (via speakers mounted to the cart); an FM radio frequency; and an Internet-based audio broadcast (via the thing.net). Visitors to City Hall Park were invited to create their own broadcast for the three potential audiences.
Due to the ongoing policy struggles over the relaxation of media consolidation regulations by the Federal Communication Commission, as well as older attempts to expand the use of low power FM stations, the “Public Broadcast Cart” takes on specifically political meanings. But it is the intersection of the explicitly political with the potential for increased subjectivity that creates a subtle tension. Such tension is exacerbated further by the actual device used as the point of interaction – the shopping cart - highlighting the utopianism of the project as indeed transient and literally “homeless.” Much like the earlier “Homeless Cart” project of Krzysztof Wodiczko, the “Public Broadcast Cart” is a utopian gesture that simultaneously points at the absurdity of the situation.
This situational absurdity, the overwhelming layers of contradictions that engulf social relations, are everywhere in our information environment. The decisions we make, and the ones that others make for us, are based on data sets that are abstractions of other data, like charts, graphs and satellite images. It is these types of pictorial data that are considered “real” information now, not the front-page photographs that are easily misleading through cropping or outright manipulation. We are now more comfortable learning about the “human condition” through programmatically generated data and models based on algorithms. Miranda Zuñiga’s “Daily Headline Deaths,” (2002) reported instances of deaths by the New York Times are compressed into simplified visual icons. “A Virtual Landscape” (2001) reveals the loss of emotional autonomy in the face of basic economics and the desire for identification with work. Information about our surroundings can be delivered in ever more efficient bits, in mobile and easily digestible formats. But it seems it can always be more efficient – an icon, for example, can more easily sum up a headline since there are only so many kinds of stories to begin with, right?
It may be easy to say that the solution to every problem is the individual’s, but the redundancy in the archive of problems, along with the mediated nature of the data used to assess those problems, makes it a bit more complicated. As Victor Burgin once wrote:
“A Response to the radical heterogeneity of the possible has always been the homogeneity of the permissible… offering us the images of the roles we may adopt, those subjects we may become, if we are ourselves to become socially meaningful.”
(from “Work and Commentary,” 1973)
“Nexum ATM,” another recent project, takes as it’s overt subject matter the historical military presence of the U.S. around the world within the context of actions by the current Bush Administration. The “Nexum ATM” website is only part of a larger work that includes an interactive, sculptural ATM machine (installed at the Bronx Museum during the Summer of 2003). The form of both the website and interactive sculpture utilize what could be called a tactic of “parodic appropriation”, developed since the 1980s by aesthetic-activists like Gran Fury and Hans Haacke, and now groups like subRosa, Critical Art Ensemble, and The Yes Men. Here the formal aesthetics of commerce, line graphs and “functionality,” are conflated with the details of past and current US military interventions to make the obvious connection between commercial and military motives.
It would be easy to shrug off this representation of information that anyone who’s ever heard of Chomsky has heard before. But to take such a flippant view would be to accept the information at face value and not engage the representation. “Nexum ATM” is playing with what Alex Galloway has called “phrasing” - the “collapsing of conceptual distance” that creates a situation of “content-evacuation and the simplification of complex social relationships.”  Parodic appropriation reverse engineers this process of phrasing, seeking to make the social relationship more complex rather than simplified. Even the connection made between U.S. economic and military investments in “Nexum” are complicated through the use of a competitive sports metaphor. A lone (patriotically outfitted) Greco-Roman wrestler performs moves on invisible competitors while visitors read about various U.S. invasions. The image of the wrestler seems to be part of the phrasing, referencing the corporate appropriation of the competitive signifiers of “American masculinity,” but it becomes overly exaggerated and disrupts the comfort of easily consumed information.
The question “What is to be done?” has been going around again, asking for ideas of social action and collective problem solving. Collaborative blogs, diversified mailing lists, creative campaigns, and more have been created, dispersed, uploaded and downloaded by relatively large groups of people working to create and promote other ways of communicating, organizing and living in opposition to dominant broadcast models. At the center of all of this seems to be Information, and the latest index of its importance is the World Summit on the Information Society to be held in Geneva this December.
For Halley in 1987, information seemed to be irrelevant for those isolated individuals who “may live a few feet apart in adjacent apartments, in adjacent buildings, on the same floor, without ever meeting or considering each other’s existence.” Now, we may not know our neighbor, but the lucky might have an expansive, virtual social network. The expanded field of information should not be taken at face value, however. It is a field divided by many fences, not unlike those that the Latino immigrant protagonist in Miranda Zuñiga’s online game “Vagamundo” crossed only to experience what Mike Davis and Alessandra Moctezuma have referred to as the “Third Border.” 
The surface of this expanded field is covered with bright green Bermuda grass, hiding the network of subterranean tunnels that keep it irrigated. Maybe the circle that Halley viewed as a closed line was actually the outline of a hole yet to be dug. Hopefully we’re preparing ourselves for what’s below the surface.
Ricardo Miranda Zuñiga’s works can be found at http://www.ambriente.com
 Halley, Peter, “On Line,” Blasted Allegories, The New Museum of Contemporary Art & MIT Press, 1987
 Galloway, Alex, “Fonts and Phasing,” Digital Delirium, St. Martin’s Press, 1997
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