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Digital automation has revolutionized music production. As the market and procedural structures have shifted, so too has the relationship between artist and art.
Increasingly, and to the benefit of music as a whole, the accessibility of computers and digital audio interfaces has significantly democratized the production and consumption of music. We see more and more the institutional constraints of old-guard music production dismantled in lieu of independent outlets on websites like Soundcloud or Bandcamp. No longer is an artist held in creative limbo until a major record label executive chances upon their work, an extremely unlikely event in and of itself. In the post-internet world, an artist can garner a significant following by recording locally and simply posting their work on a well-trafficked platform. And though the institutionalized model of production does provide benefits to a small, highly concentrated group of artists, their status is often more dependent on their willingness to conform to the restraints imposed by those institutions than on the merits of their art. The new model, the model in which art is distributed directly to easily accessible platforms, allows an artist to bypass these restraints, and see the efficacy of their work determined in real time through listener/viewer support. The model also gives some assurance that an artist’s work will not fail due to niche appeal, as there are a growing number of niche audiences engaged in vibrant online communities that share an intense affection for their particular interest. Furthermore, the increased access to unconventional work offered by the internet ensures greater propagation of those works, necessarily involving more people in specific subcultural communities.
However, despite the great advantages that come with democratized distribution, there remain notable detriments in its construction. Those detriments definitely do not, however, include a mournful nostalgia for the supposed “specialness” (a synonym for “produced by a select few”) of music under the institutional system, an argument which often has more to do with aesthetic preferences than uniqueness. In fact, contrary to this viewpoint, the accessibility of distribution has resulted in remarkable innovations, specifically within the field of electronic music. Many musicians that I have covered exemplify this.
Unfortunately, the detriments still largely pertain to electronic music. The technical sophistication of production software presents a troubling dilemma: how responsible is the artist for their work if its production is deeply dependent on complex algorithms for which the artist is not responsible? If one should choose, one can construct a multi-instrumental work entirely out of preset material, never once engaging with a single facet of music theory. This ease of production threatens to dismantle the intrinsic relationship between the artist and the art. Contrarily, one could argue that music has always had a fractured relationship to its creator, as it is necessarily mediated through exterior instruments (excluding purely vocal performances). How could one argue that the pianist must necessarily deny authorship of their work by virtue of its debt to the piano? This argument, however, fails to consider the value of composition in the musical tradition. The pianist has authored the piece by virtue of their composing it, just as the classical composer is responsible for their composition. In the case of algorithmically precomposed music though, authorship is much more difficult to delegate. Perhaps the programmer is the author in this instance, or perhaps there is none at all.
This all begs the question, what are the responsibilities of electronic musicians in the age of automated composition? To begin answering this question, it must first be acknowledged that composition remains the central indicator of authorship for any given piece, and that performative considerations need not be taken into account in its delegation. Secondarily, it must be noted that any composition is inexorably linked to the cultural codes and symbols in which it exists. This presents a dilemma. Music is never created in a vacuum, therefore influence is inescapable. Furthermore, the consumption and transmutation of external symbols which informs all composition is itself a form of coding, a process of distilling references to conform to an aesthetic framework. The distinction between this form of coding and the type employed by an external force lies in their ownership. No matter the degree to which an artist’s compositional form is beholden to external components, the artist has coded all of the stimuli internally, necessarily indicating their ownership of the code. One degree removed from direct authorship perhaps, the artist owns the code that authors their work, a crucial point when answering the question of responsibility. If we consider this to be true, it must then also be true that the submission of external coding as the totalizing basis for a composition exonerates the artist from any authorship. There are, of course, degrees to which the implementation of borrowed material degrades an artist’s authorship in any given piece, so repurposing external material does not denote thievery in itself necessarily. It is the process of manipulation, be it in content or context, of external material that counteracts this degradation, and can therefore consolidate true authorship in the framework of sampled musical components. Though the specific point at which an artist creates a composition remains unclear, both the maximization of personal interaction, and the conscious effort to innovate in a composition are imperative in building a closer relationship between the artist and the art. On the side of the consumer, it may be useful to devalue the vapid pieces that briefly make us sympathize with those reactionaries who bemoan the loss of music’s “specialness.”
There has been much deliberation as of late on the manner in which art should respond to its contextual imperatives. These conditions include, but are not limited to, matters of distribution, manufacture, socio-economic matrixes, technological communications, and their intermingling relationships that impact every facet of the present art world.
In the view of art theorist Suhail Malik, in order for art to contend with its essential contextual conditions it must “exit from contemporary art.” He supports this notion through first defining the logic of contemporary art, and then arguing that the preponderance of its essential axioms are in conflict with those of a formally defined art. However, to begin this discussion, the axioms of contemporary art must be clearly defined. To do so, he discusses the incompatibility between contemporary art’s appeal to universality by its claim to any art created in the “now” (the contemporary), and its inherent characteristics and specificities that form a “soft identity” removed from the former construction. “If contemporary art can be characterized,” he argues, “it is more at the level of a form of proposal, or a moment of address.” Contemporary art seeks to address the question of the conditions of contemporaneity as a unifying interrogation, but shares no “common answer.” It is, for Malik, a “meta-genre of non-identification,” or indeterminacy, that mistakenly conflates the lack of unity of the present with a responsibility for art to respond to these conditions by negating determinability. Despite the non-unifying totality of the present, each element of the contemporary can be scaled and defined and as such, a formal logic can be applied without defying some sacred code to which art is beholden. In fact, to Malik, a responsibility of art to commit to indeterminacy is in itself a repudiation of its defining characteristics because art, as a constructed concept, cannot faithfully devote itself to its negation, a lack of identification. In this way, contemporary art is also poorly suited for contending with the contemporary, for “it confuses the determinability question of what is presented with the absence of identity of the present.” In other words, there are determinable elements which define contemporaneity, and each element collectively constructs its non-unification.
The tenants of non-classification to which contemporary art adheres act as causal agents for the tendency of many artists to reject the institutional realities in which their art necessarily exists. What emerges from this is a committed escapism from the contemporary, causing disengagement from the contextual realities engrained within an individual piece, or a collection of pieces. However much an artist seeks to evade these imperatives, contemporary conditions of a piece’s distribution and consumption remain inexorable from the content. This is not to say that contemporary art rejects context as a generality, for there are myriad examples of artists adapting their pieces to be more suited for an art gallery space. In the video works of Ryan Trecartin for instance, scenes tend to appear as overwhelmingly erratic, hypersensory depictions that shirk the subtleties of traditional narrative. This method is highly adaptive for the gallery environment, as it contends with the viewing patterns of passers-by in an exhibition who might enter in the middle of the video, or stay for a few minutes and then move on. By keeping a consistent aesthetic coherency throughout the duration of the video, those viewers can leave with a more holistic sense of the piece’s essence without necessarily observing its entirety from beginning to end. In this way the artist is successful in conveying their message clearly given the immediate spatial and temporal contexts of the piece.
But what of the conditions of institutional contexts? Surely the corporate structures that dictate artistic distribution would be fertile ground for exploration in those very pieces. Though immersively engaging with corporatism is still fairly untrodden ground in the contemporary art world, some artists have succeeded in committing to these realities within their own work. A notable exemplar of this engagement is artist Tabor Robak, and his multi-screen video installations that combine the visual aesthetics of modern videogames, advertisements and social networking platforms. In conjunction with this aesthetic amalgam is a veneer of extreme gloss and visual excess in Robak’s work: blinding lens flare, 1080p displays of obsessively detailed 3d models, menus and notifications appearing and transitioning, all at a dizzyingly accelerated frame rate. The effects of this persistent use of superficiality are varied, but occur simultaneously in the viewer, producing an uneasy emotional ambiguity.
In Robak’s single-screen video 20XX, a shining, futuristic cityscape is rendered in high definition, with sleek lighting and hyperrealistic raindrops sliding across the simulated camera which at once act as agents for visual distortion and as transitional devices to trigger the subsequent scene. The world in this piece is visually stunning, depicting an idyllic, urban utopia containing countless skyscrapers drenched in a neon glow, fireworks bursting into the saturated sky, and a wide swath of visual effects that indicate the digital complexity of the virtual environment. However, it is with this immediate evocation of elation that the piece supplants extreme anxiety: the city is too clear, too pristine. The superficial effects of the environment are as delighting as they are monstrous, at once a symbol of digital accelerationism and a beacon for the vacuousness of modern consumer culture. The piece is alien, yet familiar, for the symbols contain identifiable techno-utopian aesthetics, yet deny their integrity by over-accentuating these heretofore attractive elements while diminishing others (narrative, pathos), resulting in a hyperreal environment that stresses the uneasiness of existing technology’s role in both consumer culture and utopian ideals. To add to the unease, throughout the piece, video game brand names increase frequency over time, appearing as billboards littered across the cityscape. By specifically referencing video game companies in the piece, Robak highlights the virtuality of contemporaneity as it pertains to consumerism. Video games offer virtual modes of existence which can immerse a player completely, yet there also exists a manipulative component in which developers succumb to superficial means of engagement in order to appeal to a wider audience for economic purposes. Perhaps the emotional conflict produced in Robak’s work can best be summed up by the artist himself: “There’s this shiny exterior, and there’s this sad little nugget.”
Endless avenues are available for artists to interact with systemic conditions, but to disengage is tantamount to neglecting contemporaneity. Indeterminacy as the unifying artistic mode only permits those concepts in which a consensus of non-identification has been established. By directly immersing art in the aesthetic or procedural values of these systems, perhaps the dialogue on the norms and practices of the art world can be shifted towards a rejection of the consensus, towards an art truly fit for the contemporary.
This video with visuals by Jon Rafman and music by Oneohtrix Point Never (the pseudonym of electronic music pioneer Daniel Lopatin) premiered in 2013, leading up to the release of Oneohtrix Point Never’s album R Plus Seven on Warp Records.
Throughout Still Life (Betamale), virtual environments are juxtaposed with digital counterparts, at once displaying the pristine space of a pixelated computer room representation, and the real-world, physical spaces in which the consumers of the former images interact with the virtual world. Though the virtual environments are displayed as idyllic representations, the real-world environments consist of clutter and decay; dozens of rooms filled to the brim with empty beer cans, cigarette butts littered across keyboards, themselves infested with mold and detritus. This dichotomy suggests a reality wherein immersed users of digital environments increasingly devalue the physical realm as a utility, constructing their virtual environments ad infinitum in its place. And why wouldn’t they?
“You see the things that were inside you. This is the womb,” a digitized voice insists. “You do not move your eyes from the screen. You have become invisible.”
There is a great comfort in interacting with stimulus that seems tailored to satisfy one’s every need, one’s every fantasy. In this world, the reductive constraints of one’s physicality have no influence, minimizing the burden of rejection management. Physicality in itself works as an antithesis to idealism, and its absence allows one to transcend one’s inherent shortcomings. One is able to manufacture a calculated construction of identity by avoiding the trappings of physicality, incentivising users to shift their essential self-identification from physicality to virtuality. The virtual world therefore becomes more real than reality, giving users a hyperreal relationship with those virtual environments that stand in for the absent utility of physical spaces.
At 3:00, a digital rendering of an anime character on a bus is shown. She spreads her legs, presumably due to the creator’s intention of evoking feelings of sexual satisfaction in the viewer. Here, the symbols are the stylized human on the bus, and the digitized bus environment in itself, at once standing in for the existence of a real woman, the placement of a woman on a real bus, and the existence of some bus environment. However, the virtuality of the anime woman, as opposed to the tangibility of a real body in the real world, works to transcend the reality of a woman through idealistic aesthetics. This is a relatively linear process of symbolic communication. Following this imagery, Rafman juxtaposes the previous scene with a video of a real woman in a real changing-room environment, dancing with a mask on meant to look like an anime character, presumably to evoke feelings of sexual satisfaction in the viewer. Here, there are codes operating on various levels, resulting in symbolic indeterminacy. At one level, the real woman dancing is a real event that took place, and the evocation of sexual satisfaction derives from an event in the real, eschewing the transcendent qualities of unreal aesthetics. At another level, the anime mask references a mode of representation meant to transcend reality through idealism, paradoxically coexisting with the real world evocations of the human body in the video. On a third level, the human body itself is not inexorably grounded in the real, as it is a representation facilitated by a video camera, and you, the viewer are necessarily interacting with the imagery on a virtual platform of your own, within the context of a video that is sending its own holistic messaging that is itself detached from any of its single components. This results in a complex and incompatible series of symbolic matrixes. As the symbolic communication of this shot is much less linear than that of the previous shot, their juxtaposition works to denote the manner in which content in virtual environments, through its abundant manufacturing and consumption, disassembles barriers between the symbolic transactions of the virtual and real world.
In these digital environments, symbols are distributed in an indeterminate, omnidirectional motion consisting of interconnected matrixes, resulting in a deconstruction of the formal properties of objects and senders. The consequence of this can be seen in this following section of the piece: a dizzying barrage of fetish erotica constantly appear and dissolve into the next erotic image, never laying stagnant or allowing for orientation. The net result is a completely demolished symbolic coherency, breaking all semblance of codes and symbols. The overflowing content becomes a meaningless representation of itself, a malfunctioning machine, bringing the construction of a distinct reality down with it.