Notes for an Off-modern Manifesto
A Margin of Error
“It's not my fault. Communication error has occurred,”
my computer pleads with me in a voice of lady Victoria. First
it excuses itself, then urges me to pay attention, to check
my connections, to follow the instructions carefully. I don't.
I pull the paper out of the printer prematurely, shattering
the image, leaving its out takes, stripes of transience, inkblots
and traces of my hands on the professional glossy surface. Once
the disoriented computer spat out a warning across the image
“Do Not Copy,” an involuntary water mark that emerged
from the depth of its disturbed memory. The communication error
makes each print unrepeatable and unpredictable. I collect the
computer errors. An error has an aura.
To err is human, says a Roman proverb. In the advanced technological
lingo the space of humanity itself is relegated to the margin
of error. Technology, we are told, is wholly trustworthy, were
it not for the human factor. We seem to have gone full circle:
to be human means to err. Yet, this margin of error is our margin
of freedom. It's a choice beyond the multiple choices programmed
for us, an interaction excluded from computerized interactivity.
The error is a chance encounter between us and the machines
in which we surprise each other. The art of computer erring
is neither high tech nor low tech. Rather it’s broken-tech.
It cheats both on technological progress and on technological
obsolescence. And any amateur artist can afford it. Art's
new technology is a broken technology.
Or shall we call it dysfunctional, erratic, nostalgic? Nostalgia
is a longing for home that no longer exists or most likely,
has never existed. That non-existent home is akin to an ideal
communal apartment where art and technology co-habited like
friendly neighbours or cousins. Techne, after all,
once referred to arts, crafts and techniques. Both art and technology
were imagined as the forms of human prosthesis, the missing
limbs, imaginary or physical extensions of the human space.
Many technological inventions, including film and space rocket
were first envisioned in the science fiction; imagined by artists
and writers, not scientist. The term “virtual reality,”
was in fact coined by Henri Bergson, not Bill Gates. Originally
it referred to the virtual realities of human imagination and
conscience that couldn't be mimicked by technology. In the early
twentieth century the border between art and technology was
particularly fertile. Avant-garde artists and critics used the
word “technique” to mean an estranging device of
art that lays bare the medium and makes us see the world anew.
Later the advertisement culture appropriated avant-garde as
one of the styles, as an exciting marketable look that domesticates,
rather than estrange the utopia of progress. New Hollywood cinema
uses most advanced technology to create the special effects.
If artistic technique revealed the mechanisms of conscience,
the technological special effect domesticates the illusions
Has Art itself become a mere out take, a long footnote to the
human history? In the United States it is technology, not culture,
that is regarded to be a space for innovations. Art, it seems,
has overstayed its welcome. But the amateur artists, immigrants
from the disintegrated homeland, survive against all odds. Often
they cross the border illegally and like the diasporic repo-men
try to repossess what used to belong to them, re-conquer the
space of art.
The amateur artists aspire neither for newness nor for a trendy
belatedness. The prefixes “avant” and “post”
appear equally outdated or irrelevant in the current media age.
The same goes for the illusions of “trans.” But
this doesn't mean that one should try desperately to be in.
There is another option; not to be out, but off. As in off-stage,
off-key, off-beat and occasionally, off-color. One doesn't
have to be “absolutely modern,” as Rimbaud once
dreamed, but off-modern. A lateral move of the knight
in game of chess. A detour into some unexplored potentialities
of the modern project.
Broken-tech art doesn't thrive in destruction. At times, I go
so far as to hit my computer, give it a mild spanking, push
it to the limit. I want to handle it manually, like a craftsman
handles his tools but without craftsman's faith in the materials.
Yet I never wish to annihilate the computer and return to the
anxieties of leaking pens and inkblots on the grid- paper of
my childhood. Broken-tech art is not Luddite but ludic.
It challenges the destruction with play.
Leaving Sarajevo 1
Images by Boym
2. Short Shadows, Endless Surfaces
In the early twentieth century French photographer Jacques-Henri
Lartigue wanted to make photography do what it couldn't do:
to capture movement. The blurs on the image are photographic
errors, nostalgia for what photography could never be, longing
for cinema. Yet photography shouldn't become as garrulous
as a film. It offers an elliptic narrative without a happy
ending. Its fleeting narrative potentialities would never
find their scriptwriters and producers. There would always
be a cloud or two, a crack on the surface of the picture,
a short shadow that evades the plot.
With his inimitable oblique lucidity Walter Benjamin wrote
about the importance of short shadows. They are “no
more than the sharp black edges at the feet of things, preparing
to retreat silently, unnoticed , into their burrow, their
secret being.” Short shadows speak of thresholds, warn
us against being too short-sighted or too long-winged. When
we get too close to things, disrespecting their short shadows,
we risk to obliterate them, but if we make shadow too long
we start to enjoy them for their own sake. Short shadows urge
us to check the balance of nearness and distance, to trust
neither those who speak of essences of things nor those who
preach conspiratorial simulation.
Broken-tech art is an art of short shadows.
It turns our attention to the surfaces, rims and thresholds.
From my ten years of travels I have accumulated hundreds of
photographs of windows, doors, facades, back yards, fences,
arches and sunsets in different cities all stored in plastic
bags under my desk. I re-photograph the old snapshots with
my digital camera and the sun of the other time and the other
place cast new shadows upon their once glossy surfaces with
stains of the lemon tea and fingerprints of indifferent friends.
I try not to use the preprogrammed special effects of Photoshop;
not because I believe in authenticity of craftsmanship, but
because I equally distrust the conspiratorial belief in the
universal simulation. I wish to learn from my own mistakes,
let myself err. I carry the pictures into new physical environments,
inhabit them again, occasionally deviating from the rules
of light exposure and focus.
At the same time I look for the ready-mades in the outside
world, “natural” collages and ambiguous double
exposures. My most misleading images are often “straight
photographs.” Nobody takes them for what they are, for
we are burdened with an afterimage of suspicion.
Until recently we preserved a naive faith in photographic
witnessing. We trusted the pictures to capture what Roland
Barthes called “the being there” of things. For
better or for worse, we no longer do. Now images appear to
us as always already altered, a few pixels missing here and
there, erased by some conspiratorial invisible hand. Moreover,
we no longer analyse these mystifying images but resign to
their pampering hypnosis. Broken- tech art reveals the degrees
of our self-pixelization, lays bare hypnotic effects of our
3. Errands, Transits.
We are surrounded by the anonymous buildings of our common
modernity, a part of the other International Style not commemorated
in masterpieces but inhabited in the outskirts of Warsaw,
Petersburg, Berlin, Sarajevo, Bratislava, Zagreb, Sofia. These
buildings, often indistinguishable from one another, even
in my own photographs, compose an outmoded mass ornament of
global culture. That is only at the first glance, of course.
If we look closer we see that no window, balcony or white
wall is alike. People in these anonymous dwelling places develop
the most nuanced language of minor variations; they expose
singular and unrepeatable out takes of their ordinary lives:
a lace curtain half-raised, a dusty lampshade in retro colours
of the 1960s, a potted flower that knew better days, a piece
of a risqué underwear hung on a string here and there. The
inhabitants of these buildings dream of elsewhere, homesick
and sick of home. The satellite dishes spread out
over the ruined balconies like desert flowers.
Leaving New York
Images by Boym
4. A Critic, an Amateur
If in the 1980s artists dreamed of becoming their own curators
and borrowed from the theorists, now the theorists dream of
becoming artists. Disappointed with their own disciplinary
specialization, they immigrate into each other's territory.
The lateral move again. Neither backwards nor forwards, but
sideways. Amateur's out takes are no longer excluded but placed
side-by-side with the non-out takes. I don't know what to
call them anymore, for there is little agreement these days
on what these non-out takes are.
But the amateur's errands continue. An amateur, as Barthes
understood it, is the one who constantly unlearns and loves,
not possessively, but tenderly, inconstantly, desperately.
Grateful for every transient epiphany, an amateur is not greedy.
Theorist, author and media artist from Russia, based in Boston,
Svetlana is the author of "The Future of Nostalgia"
(New York: Basic Books, 2001) and of the novel 'Ninochka"
(SUNY Press, 2003)
Hommage to Jacques Derrida, Oct. 10, 2004