The experience of online time is resistant to narration and description. The prompt to do is like being asked to approach global capital with a view to rating it as an experience. On the one hand, online time1 is flat and continuous, both tool and material of standardization; on the other, it’s intermittent and marked by the infrastructural echoes of its host environment, which introduces blips such as ‘loading’ or ‘buffering’. And yet, as Russian formalist Viktor Shklovsky was always at pains to demonstrate, in an axiom that eventually became critical wallpaper, it is only when the medium starts to stutter that attention is activated, and trying to solve the problem posed to you by the experience of art also brings you closer to the reality you had frictionlessly moved through just a moment before.
Much of the work that has transpired as net art over the past couple of decades has drawn energy from the discrepancy between the Internet’s material errancies and its systemic existence as the consummate ‘space of flows’. The efforts to cloak these errancies and non-simultaneities in the opacity of the interface was an early target for now-canonical net art producers such as Alexei Shulgin, jodi.org or 0100101110101101.org, which, in common with current practices such as UBERMORGEN.COM and Thomson & Craighead, are equally at ease in the off-screen world of gallery exhibition, a world now far more pervaded by observing and effective digital technologies than it was when the first prominent generation of net artists began in the 1990s. Yet the peculiar, baffling experience of time as it is phased and generated by events unfolding via the Internet, a thing which is both an implement and a space, remained a preoccupation for relatively few who started out in a time when this peculiarity was more pronounced, because the Internet’s materiality was more distinct, that is, in the pre-Web 2.0 era. YOUNG-HAE CHANG HEAVY INDUSTRIES (??????) is one of those few, a corporate name for a duo who started working together in 1999. Their appearance has not varied since then: Flash animations of black text on white, set to jazzy music, although sometimes flashes of colour have occurred.
The phenomenological strangeness of online time can be described as a direct experience of a dimension of the Internet which usually remains notional, which is to say, its boundlessness. All of YHCHI’s work is made of this boundlessness, again, in a very direct way: unlike most moving images that unfold in the space of the Internet, it has no scrollbar indicating time. This is, however, a time that remains private to the work and occluded to the viewer. A traumatic elasticity of time is the result, gradually inducing panic as the permutations of narrative exhibit themselves cleanly but without a discernible time horizon. A sliver of abjection lodges in the gap between the time-poor life of the viewer and the infinity of YHCHI time, time off the meter. Accompanying this is a fantastical counter-history of cinema as an iconophobic medium. Had narrative forms been set into motion without the mediation of images–an a-visual cinema–it would look like the work of YOUNG-HAE CHANG HEAVY INDUSTRIES. And, of course, structural film forms the backdrop to such a project in the sense that one or other of the naturalized aspects of the experience of film comes to the forefront as theme or tool, frequently by means of another aspect dropping out. Here the image is not there, or rather, it has been replaced by a text-image. (And often the language itself is festooned with embedded images achieved linguistically.) Here we can invoke the ‘image of thought’ developed by Deleuze, someone who also enunciated the modernist lynchpin of difficulty as both the engine of attention and the basis for a renewed encounter with the world–’something forces us think’; it’s not a natural occurrence. He also discussed the ‘time-image’ as the shift in cinema technique which anchors the film less to an expected plot full of action and reaction, and starts to unravel its own narrative logic in the attempt to represent the experience of pure time: an eminently modernist gesture in a time-based medium. The principal axis of demand for YHCHI is then time commitment, modernist difficulty here boiled down to the patience needed to follow the narrative of the flashing words with no indication of where are they are going or when they will stop.
Beyond the variations in the speed of the Flash narration and the musical accompaniment, the product of the INDUSTRIES is fundamentally generic, invoking the age when ‘heavy industries’ dominated production, and standardization was captured in purpose-built aphorisms like Henry Ford’s ‘the customer can have any colour of car, so long as it’s black.’ It is principally the generic which connotes industry here–a regime decisively prior to the ‘just-in-time’ rationality and mass customisation that define industrial production today. This pre-digital outlook thus differentiates YHCHI’s digital art from contemporary iterations of the corporate form in collective practices such as K-HOLE, AIDS-3D, LuckyPDF, Christopher Kulendran Thomas, or the New Ultra Group. This cohort leaves off invoking and rather out-and-out traverses the art, design and commercial worlds as a literal acknowledgement, or, rather, capitalization, of the place of art in the informatic, affective, high-end service industries of our era. It has been observed that the uniformity imparted to processes of distribution has placed the final period in the tortuous path of artistic autonomy. This is a uniformity most pronounced in social media as the main channel of distribution for artworks as it is for everything else. This subsumption, augured by the digital, levels not only types of production, but the registers that any single practice (or milieu of practices) would invoke—which for YHCHI would include modalities such as corporate speech, narrative, film, poetry, and net art. The use of a brand or a corporate name is perhaps only the initial gesture towards the generic, which here functions as an imaginative junction of product and medium. The enunciation of a corporate identity thus functions in a gestural way, which can be indexed alongside the likes of N.E. Thing Co. and other more or less playful counter-intuitions of art’s singularity within the uniformity of commercial product. Conversely, the more recent work enacts the conditions of its ‘real subsumption’ as economic niche in a fashion which is continuous with the service economy but which also diffracts its uniformity and flags its art status. This is, however, intrinsically no more so than many cutting-edge brand entities; it is the positioning within an art context that marks the polyvalence of the approach.
We can then propose that this marks a shift from the gestural invocation of corporate branding to signal the proximity (as well as the difference) between art and commerce towards a more structural approach that inhabits circuits of brand valorisation and emulates their strategies in an act of critical immanence. Here, the traversal of increasingly proximate systems of legitimation–art and niche services or products–acts as the key to the autonomy which continues to be residual to the gesture of emulation: given that the success of the endeavour is judged in terms of the possibilities opened up by the mimicry rather than by the health of the profit margin, there is a speculative homogeneity between art and commerce in the ‘post-digital’ which such practices emphasize. However, as noted earlier, this focuses on distribution and the production of identity. Once these practices cease to signify as art—and cease to be supported by artworld infrastructures—they similarly cease to be provocative, much less profitable, as commerce.
The ‘post-digital’ is of course here not an exhaustive circumscription, as projects such as Superflex and the Bernadette Corporation have been working both ends of the art/commerce behemoth–that is, both semiotically and operationally—since the mid-1990s. Analogously, there are important distinctions to be drawn between the practices already discussed, which operate as symbolic or actual brands, and the ‘market-reflexive’ practices outlined by Isabelle Graw (which seem to mainly thematise their relationship to the art market) on the one hand, and, on the other, works that articulate the conditions of social abstraction that impart common features to the circulation of art and money—such as the work of Sam Lewitt or the curatorial premises of a recent exhibition such as and Materials and Money and Crisis (MUMOK, Vienna, 2013). The latter stakes its claims within the idiom of exhibition and catalogue as a plausible critical public sphere, while the former believes this platform is only one of many (such as social media, boutiques and magazines), simultaneously reflecting and pursuing the ever-more intractable conditions of artistic production as a niche sphere of erratic and contingently critical commodities. This is ‘post-digitality’ as ‘post-complicity’, engendering a necessary tautology of means and ends, tending towards the neutralization of critical distance from both within and outside the project. The easy reference here is often the tenets of ‘accelerationism’: a sort of ‘weaponised’ version of the old habitus of complicity-as-criticality. Here you push through capitalism to get to the other side, hopefully exploding it in the process. Often enough, that repeats (while purporting to revile) some very old modernist tropes to celebrate a marriage of convenience with your helpful antagonist. The key one is of course autonomy: the prerogative to nominate the capitalist market as your medium, and the brand as your artwork.
So here may be the point to try and think together the digital, specifically the online, experience of time that we started out with, and the symptomatic effacement of art as a separate economy, carried out under the banner of critical immanence to what is taken as the ‘real subsumption’ of art. This subsumption, as we have seen, has to be categorized as primarily applicable to the distribution of art—not its production, which still happens under conditions principally unlike those of wage labour, be it service or industrial, at best echoing the entrepreneur. Distribution is the flat medium, the flat time, that encodes all that can be thought, felt, or made as moments in the slipstream of the post-digital and its endlessly elastic yet violently value-formed affordances. Yet the disruptive experience of time in the works of YOUNG-HAE CHANG HEAVY INDUSTRIES seems to beckon our attention elsewhere, even if the tactic to achieve this is to stretch it into agony. It may not tell us a great deal about branding strategies as a parameter for contemporary art—at least insofar as these are apprehended as its main parameter, an autophagic critique which, contra its discourse, was normalized from the start. What it does signal is that our relationship to time remains the ground of any possible autonomy, which extends to the question of whether art can ever claim autonomy from capital. This is a premise whose pragmatic poverty is richly exposed, not to say exhibited, by a number of the approaches featured in the preceding discussion. If ‘real subsumption’ is taken for a hypothesis, then the stakes of taking art as a pivot for a (post-)critical immanence require some explanation. What constitutes the autonomy that still raises these stakes as art in this fully continuous field of art and general economy? Is it a position in relations of production? A question of labour? A reflexivity about form or materials? A particular reflexivity about the heteronomy it is embedded in? A structure of capitalisation or lack thereof? A determination of opacity–in what sense? A production of subjectivity? (This last possibility can either take us back to the question of labour or lead us into a generative detour via Felix Guattari’s notion of ‘autonomisation’ as a process of encounter with singularity which can be individually and collectively shattering, as well as constitutive.)
As Devin Fore writes in his analysis of Brecht’s The Threepenny Novel, ‘the architecture of time and memory in any given culture is articulated by its specific mode of production.’ A narrative unspooling such as YHCHI’s, lacking any awareness that time is money, and form is capital, vandalizes the affect of time on the meter. This is a time in which our lives rhyme with value production (or at least its possibility), as is shown all too well by the gruelling rhythms of work-like activity imposed on those structurally unemployed by the state. Time as a resource is the time that shapes us into human resources; yet, as we have seen from Deleuze’s cinema theory, the time-image is no less than the paradox of time captured as boundless in a cinematic narrative, time framed in its capacity to exceed all framing and all direction. This kind of dislocated time acts both as the basis for, and an exception to, the experience of online time. Time turns into an object, a strange attractor of our attention. It is no longer our activity ‘sucking us in’, like days troublingly misplaced in Twitter or World of Warcraft, but a direct collision with time. There might not be anything pedagogical about this, but the fact that it is traumatic is still interesting.
- Here precariously distinguished from time spent online in order to preserve a tighter link to the technological context. [↩]