Category Archives: Criticism

Step by Step Guide to Midsummer | Jo Robertson

Step by Step Guide to Midsummer

A difficult artist to grasp, it’s not my intention to elucidate the full range of Robertson’s misdemeanours and accomplishments. Others have done that both with dull employment and mischievous intensity; send them out as ambassadors! No. Where it seems appropriate, reach out to the creators, their appetites precede them. The search for a new kind of painting begins on a beach in the south of France, imagining seared peinture-mots produced by an artisan skilled in indulging barrenness.

Dabbed and squirted, a small proxy, about twice as good as it needs to be. Only a smaller piece of extra texture is displayed, and it doesn’t matter. No jaded and anonymous shills and pilferers for that mass of matter. One image on stretched canvas. The bonds rupture and the particles move on the surface of the image of an otherwise clothed body, the murmurings of the facture more delicate, magnificent, and tender than any minor historical masterstroke from the 1950s. Drawing strewn here and there. A pellucid bottle green echoes my erstwhile experience as a professional eater, one of pleasure, luxury, and abundance. A puce sluice drips and blobs sans cérémonie, producing a thrill-packed finish as it slowly congeals.

Larger pieces are fully on vapours. A thrilling picture! A dazzling series in abandoned jade and tachisme purée. A luminous emerald slathered before an indifferent public. Dilute browns (known as ‘cinnamons’ in England at the time this goes to press) are a magnificent metaphor for the poète maudit. The striations of the black surfaces, portals into an imaginary 19th-century city, recall the beautiful megalomania of one who frequently wrote to newspapers in support of her besieged friend. Technique mixte. A pillow in relief, painted in the Aquitaine region. All the curves of the model’s body whipped smooth until they turn to garlands.

Merely for diversion, Robertson goes about in odd shapes; in which she acts her part so naturally, that even those who are in on the secret can perceive nothing by which she might be discovered. For that, I’m grateful.


Dr. Mulholland reviewed for Puce Timesfor three years from 1996, during which period he exclusively covered painting in the Zlín Region of Moravia. Although his website still includes his biography, which can be found through a search engine, it no longer prominently features him.

Notes on Groundcourse

Notes on Groundcourse – Neil MulhollandThe Groundcourse was a two year foundation that ran at Ipswich School of Art from 1961 onwards. Discussions of this course now tend to focus on its impact upon online learning environments, cybernetic art and some of Roy Ascott’s more utopian predictions regarding the world wide web (what he called ‘telematic’ art). One of the main ideas of the Groundcourse was the idea of the ‘irritant’. This involves introducing rules or conditions that will facilitate a kind of self-consciousness in learning (sand in the vaseline).

This is designed to enable ‘learning from the ground up’ – which relates to radical pedagogy (Illich’s ‘Deschooling Society and Jaqcues Rancier’s ‘Ignorant Schoolmaster’). This is common to many 1960s art school experiements, especially those informed by systems theory. The element of the Groundcourse I find most interesting is when students spent ten weeks of their second year living out a character contra to their own. I think that we can consider this as an experiment in which everyone calibrates the conditions for themselves:
“The Groundcourse emphasising behavioral change as a founding principle for enabling creativity, utilized the enactment of new personalities as educational strategy.” ground<c>: The Enablement of Creativity in a Metaverse – Art Education in a metaverse: ground<c>
This now has resonance with the common use of avatars in online games and chatrooms (there’s a SecondLife version of the Groundcourse called ground<c>) It’s also similar to other doubles in the arts, such as the motif of ‘Bunberrying’ (from Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’, Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt‘s Oblique Strategies (1975) ‘reverse an axiom’ card (Eno was a student on the Groundcourse), and the character George Costanza ‘Doing the Opposite’ in Seinfeld. The easiest way to understand this is to watch this clip from Seinfeld:

Darren Banks

In a parallel universe, Darren Banks makes drawings of enigmas, blobs, microbes, and beasts from beyond. In this, his elusive process of slow erasure produces phantasms of a homespun calibre. A collage of film clips feature (or rather don’t feature) the invisible man, revealing (or not) ‘When Nobody’s There’ (2006). An over zealously washed baseball cap ‘Hotwash’ (2006) will eventually disintegrate, cleaned to death by mum. ‘That Phantom Sock’ (2006) you’ve been looking for down the back of the sofa dematerializes as it vanishes up the end of the large hadron collider.

Banks summons up these phantoms not to divulge themselves, but to playfully engage more of our time by obsfucating and deceiving us further. ‘Public Sculpture/Private Radar’ (2008) loops an anomalous remnant of sci-fi to create a retro-futuristic hybrid of a radar station and Moore-esque monumentalism. ‘Palace Video’ (2005) is constructed from the first few animated frames of an old VHS rental tape, rapidly rewinding and advancing footage of a lightning struck Schloss frame-by-frame to create a teasing gothic air of suspense. The loop crescendos to a studied anti-climax that reveals, ironically, that it is just an anti-piracy warning, guaranteed disappointment that would do Scooby Doo.

Banks contaminates his world by what is absent. It’s a mash up of once familial things that don’t, as yet, hold any value: old white goods, doodles, executive toys, VHS tapes. He plays with domestic pondlife, the fringeworthy, the car boot beatific, the stuff you stuck in the attic and pretended wasn’t there. These are cultural experiences and objects that fill up our days and kill our time, the bits of our consumer lives that aren’t normally considered worth freecycling. It’s where the action isn’t. Putting the kettle on but forgetting to make the tea, hunting for a lost sock but never finding it, sticking on a video but failing to get past the titles. Banks’ devotion to disturbances of meaning are the things that screams are made of.

Dans l’air du Soir – Notes on Ambient Art

“The world is full of objects, more or less interesting; I do not wish to add any more. I prefer, simply, to state the existence of things in terms of time and place.’’

Douglas Huebler (1970)

The dematerialisation of art at the turn of the 1970s was connected to a zen-like desire to fast from consumerist glut, to a refusal to participate in the mainstream culture. This emerged in a culture that was, like our own, increasingly concerned with lean ecologies. Artists like Douglas Huebler were troubled as much with ecological issues as they were with cultural ecologies, the two demanded a more sustainable approach. Seeking to minimise the impact of their work upon the environment to produce projects rather than objects, living gestures rather than museological landfill, these artists heralded an ambient approach to the world around us (1). Their challenge to the socialising aspects of consumerism necessitated establishing an alternative schema of socialised value based around participation in the production of culture. To be part of the production of a culture, rather than simply to be a consumer of cultures, is to become more intimately enveloped in the culture. This has meant coming out more.

Come Out

Extra-mural excursions led artists to consider the world as their playground, their canvas. From the position of the present, the most interesting new art of the ‘60s and ’70s was not merely placed in the environment, rather the environment was approached from the emerging artistic paradigms of the period (systems, networks, psychologies, gender politics, etc.) This subtle shift in emphasis has had major implications for the legitimacy of art placed in public places by public and private commissioning bodies. The idea that artists should permanently transform the environment, that they should turn spaces into places, has been gradually substituted by a different paradigm, one that holds a similar power over today’s artists, the idea that artists should only make temporary interventions into an existing social and cultural fabric. Interventionism, with its pop-situationist radical veneer, is rife in publicly oriented art practice today. Interventionism is predicated on the understanding that artists are ordinary members of the public – rather than shamen or steersmen – and have a much, or as little, right to public space as anyone else.

Artists who adopted these ideas early on in the late ‘60s are celebrated now for their attempts to extend the parameters and boundaries of the institutions that we associate with the artworld. Rosalind Krauss’ expanded field for art practice, something that considerably extended the reach of publicly-sited sculpture in particular, should not simply be regarded as an opening out of the gallery in to the environment. Rather it should be seen as the logical conclusion of the extra-mural activities of artists, curators, writers – professionals who constitute the artworld. Some members of the artworld tend to invert this process, imagining that they have introduced the world to art, that they are key players in the aestheticisation of the social sphere. However, it is not the world that has become aestheticised; it is the artworld that has been encultured.

The implications of this paradigm have elicited three broad responses: reform, transformation and no response. The last form of response is the most obvious, do nothing. There are numerous examples of public art being commissioned as I write which could have been commissioned in much the same way 100 years ago of which I will say no more. The second response – which, for the purposes of brevity I will herein call minumentalism – is conservative is a less dramatic way. It involves a reconsideration and reconstruction of the object in public space. The third kind of response, which I will concentrate upon more intently in these notes, involves a moratorium on the object in favour of an explicitly post-studio practice that embraces ambient experience and the playful adoption of ambient tactics in equal measure.


As a response to the reconsideration of ‘public culture’, minumentalism is the most visible and clearly connected with the discourses of contemporary art. It’s odd that, as a genre, public art should presently be largely ignored by the mainstream art press since, far from being polarised, public and private art practices today are symbiotic. Art in public spaces is something that can be connected, without too much trouble, to the signature-style art practices found in studios, museums and galleries and to the careers that are established on the back of these signatures. Minumentalism is especially easily accommodated by canonical and developing discourses on contemporary art since it so often requires only the slightest readjustment of a signature style to make it weather (and punter) proof. The systems of training and patronage that enable public art to be produced and reproduced exerts pressure on artists to meet its expectations rather than innovate new strategies or establish new structures or unique proclivities for the public dissemination of work. This is perhaps even more evident in public art as it is in the private market, where the artist is a contractor producing work for a client with very specific needs (rather than someone producing work speculatively in the hope that someone will buy or exhibit it). The cultures of private and public art practice converge nevertheless where artists find themselves making work to commission more often than they make work on purely speculative grounds (e.g. for residencies, theme shows, specific briefs or a the request of collectors). In these conditions the public art nexus of the art system has to subtly adapt to accommodate wider economic, social and political expectations placed upon the commissioners of public art, while ensuring business as usual for the artist, allowing them to maintain their false sense of autonomy. While maintaining the illusion of change and innovation this demonstrates that public artists, inadvertently or not, simply come to share the values of the artworld they learn to inhabit. This is not to suggest that values and practices of the artworld are entirely inappropriate to the contexts in which public artists work, just that they are represent a necessarily limited set of strategies.

A highly perceptible corollary of this limitation since the ‘70s has been a profusion of minuments, non-monumental monuments {See: Riegl, Alois} dedicated to the tiny and the inconsequential rather than the great and the good (2). These often light-hearted public sculptures come in permanent and impermanent variations. They tend to be either overtly figurative (one man=entire human endeavour), or decorative (pictographic iron railings) parochial in content (local hero / ’site-specific’ narrative). What this kind of Council Art shares with ambient tactics is a guilt or reticence regarding the role of the artist in influencing how people might use or read a social space. This guilt is compounded by a post-Arnoldian conception of culture. If culture is ordinary then cultural icons are inherently problematic. Iconicity implies a fixed point of reference, a fairly stable signifier that people can agree upon as an index of value. This is difficult today in a society that is multiplicitous, that is not united by the narratives of national culture that were dominant in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Nobody can agree on what is valuable and thus relativism or a low-radar vernacular are stock responses.

Minumentalism’s focus on the local is one way of overcoming the national imaginary’s redundancy – vernacular mobilisation being a key component of globalistion and seen as crucial to economic regeneration and urban renewal. Monumental sculpture today also suffers from a lack of willing patrons. The imperial monuments of the past were built by imperialists to celebrate their imperialism. While the world still has more than its fair share of imperialists, few today would be so brash to step forward to be cast in bronze as an enlightened philanthropic tyrant and ensnared by city centre cider drinkers for all eternity. Even if such patrons were to emerge they would find it difficult to achieve the public consensus that would allow them to build a permanent public work. A more watered down esthétique arrondissement is the inevitable result of our economic and political ennui.

The problems with minumentalism are manifold. Although born of a diagnostic, dialogical and inclusive process, minumentalism is bound to the whims of patronage just as much as monumenalism. The fact that there are more patrons involved in the extensive consultation process does not make the work more successful. The desire to build, or rather invent, place has clearly generated a consensus internationally that there is a need for such work to exist in public spaces. The question that artists have to ask themselves is whether or not this is indeed the case. Is this the best response to the issue of the erosion of place in a globalised economy? Is this the most appropriate way for artists to engage with the economy? The global economy is, of course, decentred. To contribute to your local economy is to participate in the global economy (and vice versa). This makes globalisation partly responsible for the breakdown of place, but, equally it can be just as responsible for the iconicity of place. A place is not simply a material culture, a built or natural environment; it is a myth, a series of narratives or shared cultural imaginaries which extend beyond the remit and limitation of immobile ocular art forms such as sculpture. Places change, to preserve them against all odds is to turn them into heritage, to a dead culture. Council Art and sepulchre are joined at the hip(-op). The ambient response to these problems is to abandon the conventions of art practice and embrace culture in the wider sense, dropping, in the process, the desire to be recognised by the artworld. Ambient experiences and ambient performative tactics can be found in all walks of life. Getting away with the ambient act is of as much interest as, if not more so than, the validating context.

Given that ambient culture is concerned with finding new ways of distributing work, can we meaningfully discuss ambient form? In practice, while ambient culture is highly diverse, it might be useful to attempt to sketch out two broad approaches that often combine in different measures. One might be said to be concerned with the pursuit of what are often considered to be more passive ambient experiences, the other with interactive ambient intelligences.

Day Trippers

The former understanding of ambient practice is the most widely known thanks to its popular connection with music. This has its roots in the synaesthetic music of Claude Debussy and Eric Satie. It can be found in minimalism and heard in the work of Brian Eno and numerous ambient techno artistes. The history of these practices is well known and is supported by a burgeoning academic and pop literature (3).

An ambient experience is subtle rather than obvious, ‘felt’ rather than ‘thought’. Like perfume it is invisible but nevertheless strongly asserts its presence. Ambient experiences are concerned with how we draw our attention. They are holistic: equally concerned with being inside and outside an experience. On the one hand, ambient experiences form a background to other activities; they sit to the side of what we are preoccupied with. They are easily ignored and don’t seek to be centre of attention. On the other, if we let them, they capture all of our attention. We can become wholly immersed in an ambient experience, it can mesmerise us and bring us into a different states of consciousness.

Many of these ideas were developed into more recognisable modern-day forms in the ‘60s by composers, beats, hippies, psyches and early installation artists dabbling in non-Western aesthetics and non-Western philosophies. There are no pioneering ambient works, just a growing awareness of the possibilities of ambient experience, experiences that are as ancient as many and as varied as our sensoria. Joan Hills and Sebastian Boyle’s Beyond Image and Son of Beyond Image were shot for a circular screen environment as part of their 1969 ICA exhibition ‘Journey to the Surface of the Earth’. The films were remixed live to the music of Soft Machine. Both works establish different ambient environments, bringing the visual and aural into synchronous, harmonious relationships. There was nothing new in this meeting of music and visual spectacle, fireworks concerts having been popular in London for many years, nor was it unknown for artists and pop musicians to collaborate in the ’60s. What made these works ambient was the heightened sympathetic psychonautical context in which they were displayed. They required audiences that were already willing to participate in an ambient trip (4).

Psychonauts of the ‘60s were particularly immersed in the psychedelic experience rather than engaged with radical chic. Psychonautical artworks were not simply synthetic imaginings, they should be considered as experimental portals to allegedly ’core’ experiences that might be unlocked by hallucinogenic keys. Transpersonal psychologist Stanley Krippner certainly held them to be of scientific value as might have physicist Fritjof Capra, who, in his bestseller the Tao of Physics (1975) argued that there is an essential harmony between the spirit of Eastern wisdom and Western science. For psychonaut Carpa, the search for the ultimate unified field in physics suggested that like “mystics, physicists were now dealing with a non-sensory experience of reality and, like the mystics, they had to face the paradoxical aspects of this experience. From then on, therefore, the models and images of modern physics became akin to those of Eastern philosophy.” {Capra,Fritjof} It follows that synaesthetic psych practice is sublime, an attempt to confront the paradox of making non-sensory psychedelic experiences visible, of representing the unrepresentable.

Other than in a superficial formalist sense, it’s not really feasible to imagine many people buying into this in contemporary art since it is governed by the more sceptical methodologies – it doesn’t make these grand claims and is not based on ‘belief’. The research paradigm is important in art now as it was among psychonauts, but the idea that research might pursue interiority or subjectivism is regarded with deep suspicion for a number of reasons (5). So the spontaneousness sought after in the ‘60s is not so valued, artists and commissioners of public art – who provide cultural services today – are far more strategic and calculated in their approaches. This is both a good and a bad thing. If you expect the unexpected then you are never going to be surprised by art. This pushing of boundaries wasn’t unique in or to ‘60s, and it hasn’t completely vanished as a motivation for practice. The liberal audience has simply grown due to the democratic success stories of the ‘60s. Yet today’s liberal democracies lack the immediate, first hand memory of the human rights abuses that led to the freedoms we are entitled to enjoy. Today’s audiences have, worryingly, grown to appreciate control more than chaos (6). This is at the expense of the ambient experience.

The Boyle Family’s slide shows were constantly in flux just as Brian Eno’s more recent computer-generated kaleidoscopic 77 Million Paintings, (2007) changes before the eyes, providing an iterative smorgasbord of colours and forms. Eno is, of course, a master of the ambient experience. He is commonly accredited with coining the genre of ambient music and in setting the agenda for an ambient visual culture. As an autogenerative artwork, 77 Million Paintings most certainly corresponds with Eno’s ambitions for his ambient music and with our sceptical predilections regarding interiority. The process that produces the work is algorithmic and therefore transparent in a way that the Boyle’s remixing was not. 77 Million Paintings, however, is perhaps too controlled, too tied to the narrow goals of post-painterly abstraction to constitute an intermedia. An ambient experience is not simply one that involves the consumption of an abstract field of changing shapes and colours and soundscapes, it has to engage more of the senses. It has to be embodied. The Boyle’s work was embodied in the sense that it had to be performed by the artists and by the willing participants in their happenings.

As an installation, La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela’s collaborative work Dream House (1979-85) seems to be crucial in stepping into ambient de-territory in a way that Eno achieves more in the aural sphere. Eno’s 77 Million Paintings is, arguably, overdetermined in ways that recall the psych art of the ‘60s. Its meditative potential is drowned out by its neobaroque characteristics and its lack of attention to the space in which it is situated. Dream House – today an intimate space currently situated in a tenement loft in Tribeca, Manhattan (1993-Present) – is a more apposite example of an immersive ambient experience. It is hard to ignore, pumping out megawatts of sound from enormous woofers, like a choir of jack hammers going off under your bed. The small tenement room is lit by the ambient light flooding in from the street, filtered through pink and blue films placed over the glass by Zazeela. It creates an illusionistic effect not unlike looking at the world through 3D spectacles. The space is immersive and comfortable. As you move around La Monte Young’s composition The Base 9:7:4 Symmetry in Prime Time When Centered above and below The Lowest Term Primes in The Range 288 to 224 with The Addition of 279 and 261 in Which The Half of The Symmetric Division Mapped above and Including 288 Consists of The Powers of 2 Multiplied by The Primes within The Ranges of 144 to 128, 72 to 64 and 36 to 32 Which Are Symmetrical to Those Primes in Lowest Terms in The Half of The Symmetric Division Mapped below and Including 224 within The Ranges 126 to 112, 63 to 56 and 31.5 to 28 with The Addition of 119 it alters subtly depending on where you sit or stand, the volume and frequency of the sound waves changing as you move closer to the huge loudspeakers, causing our cerebellum to adjust posture and equilibrium. It’s a bodily experience, felt all-over by the skin as much as it is seen or heard. The sound rumbles through the bones and massages the body.

Dream House guests examine space sonically, move around and become more aware of how movement and balance are something felt through our sensitivity to sound waves in addition to visual, haptic or linguistic cues. The chiaroscuro half-light helps to reinforce the heightened sense of sonic awareness, subtly drawing our attention to our engagement with the acoustics of the relations between volumes and bodies in space. Different people create different body maps and timbres; they perform their own intimist domestic dramas. After spending just a little time in Dream House the body starts to acclimatise, the deafening noise begins to recede and so the work fades more into the background. The mind wanders and starts to turn inward upon itself just as the ear might, in passages of silence, resort to propriocentric hearing (7). Significantly, this work is almost immaterial, medativative rather than physical. It is constructed very simply from minor alterations to the ambient light and by the addition of the ear-splitting composition. It can, therefore, be re-installed in any other interior locations – as it was, for example, for the Son et Lumiere exhibition at the Pompidou Centre, Paris (2004-05).

An arguably even more subtle and adaptive ambient experience can be found in Martin Creed’s Work No. 127: The lights going on and off (1995). This has been installed in many venues, including Tate Britain, London, Vistamare Associazione Culturale, Pescara, in the former Jewish Girl’s School, Mitte during the Berlin Biennial ‘06 and in his flat in Brick Lane, London to name a few. Like many of Creed’s works, Work No. 127 is contingent; its timbre changes each time it is installed. In turn, its sensual effect upon the viewer is determined greatly by the space in which it is installed. In galleries such as the Vistamare Associazione Culturale and Tate Britain, it draws our attention to the architectural features of these white cubes and to their institutional role in enabling arthood. In the former Jewish School it took on the spatial and temporal paradoxes of hauntology, the impossibility of solidifying the present, of preserving it for the future. In his flat in Brick Lane, seen only from the road, it looks like the work of a defective light fixture, or an oversensitive burglar deterrent. In each case it relies on the same very basic alternating binary (light/lack of light) of an immaterial substance (light) to produce complex emotive results. It affects the eye first and foremost, but it has a deeper impact upon the sensorium much in the manner of the strobe lighting used by the Boyles in some of their happenings. The work is remarkable in ambient terms on these grounds but also in terms of how it exudes an omnipresent character – installed in many different environments its has distinctly different effects upon the audience in each case. The work is a multiple in this sense, but, unlike most multiples and editions, it is never identical (8). It has the unpredictability of a weather system.

These examples are, of course, all based in interiors. When ambient experiences shift outdoors they are more difficult to compose, more subject to being drowned out by ambient noise and light. The experience changes perceptibly. An explicitly ambient experience that takes the environment into consideration is Tehching Hsieh’s infamous One Year Performance (1981-1982) where the artist spent one year outdoors in New York City, avoiding all shelter. Hsieh’s gesture would have remained practically invisible to his fellow New Yorkers and is even harder to imagine as a performance since it takes place over such a long period of time. Its theatricality is difficult to pin down in a way that, for example, Tatsumi Orimoto’s Breadman (various locations, 1990s) performance is not. One Year Performance is, in this aspect, a quintessentially ambient experience, it being nearly impossible to distinguish figure from ground, composed music from background noise. In this sense its precursor is Laurie Anderson’s Institutional Dream Series (1972-3). This work involved Anderson sleeping in different locations around New York City – the museum, the beach at Coney Island – to see what effect her surroundings would have upon her dreams. The work is posited as an experiment of sorts, much in keeping with trends of the day to ape and parody empirical research methods. While it may have appear to be whimsical, it’s not so far off some of the experiments that cognitive psychologists have carried out in order to better understand what happens when we are asleep. The work – in its concern with endurance and testing the limitations of the body – extends some of the preoccupations of performance art in the ‘70s into the environment. Significantly, the work does not draw attention to itself. It doesn’t register as a performance or as a theatrical event since it is not framed by an art context. Its status as a performance would have gone relatively unnoticed, Anderson either appearing to be resting, sunbathing or homeless (9).

I Want My AmI

Where Anderson’s work differs from Hsieh’s is in its attention to intelligences, to ambient forms of information. The performance functions as a tactic used to gain knowledge of a different timbre, the environment creating different colours and textures in the way that the same note sounds different on different instruments.

The immaterial, albeit devoid of its metaphysical or theological connotations, is here returned to playing a key role in the sensory system. This is much in line with the rapid transformation of the post-industrial economy into an Experience Economy {Pine, B.J. & Gilmore, J.H} stoked by scientific research on the microcosmic. What was once deemed invisible is increasingly foremost in people’s thoughts and thus back within the radar of their senses. The invisible is explicit in more of how we perceive and act upon the world around us. Things that were once the realm of science fiction – bacteria, genomes, nano-technologies, sub-atomic phenomena – are integrated into our everyday lives. We are required to have a basic understanding of the invisible to be able to function, to decide what kind of washing up liquid or mobile phone best suits our needs, to find less polluted places to live. Equally we need to consider how these microphenomena – in particular the rapidly converging algorithms of genomes and nano-technologies – mean that we ourselves are capable of being mass produced and disseminated (10). This is a widespread cultural phenomenon; to be able to perceive the world in an ambient sense is to be able to fully participate in socio-economic life, or to know what it means now to be human.

This ambient ecology has, unsurprisingly, changed the way that we make and consume art. In art since the ’60s the site of production has been expanded, extending away from the visible object towards dynamic network systems. As a result, art become more widely distributed and encountered. There is an attempt here to bring people together to share experiences, through a common embodied grounding. Many in the art world today misappropriate the network society within their work. For example, much curatorial practice now places too little attention on the sensual aspects of culture focusing either too much on socio-political metaphor or on the visual or on the project management of processes and systems. Such developments are managerial (rather than unstructured or anarchic). They miss the way in which human networks are self-organising, self-replicating systems – complex systems more commonly conceived of as being sensual. The subtleties of the sensorium are the crucial thing to grasp if we are to make sense of the minutiae. This is precisely what ambient intelligences attempt to do.

In its subtle relationship with the sensorium, Anderson’s Institutional Dream Series is reminiscent of earlier ambient works by Robert Barry and Lawrence Weiner. Their works are significant in that they took communicative experiments out of the studio/lab and into the environment, making us aware of the relationship between the macro and the micro. Once en plein air what they lost in terms of the supportive art context they gained in association with a wider array of validating contexts. These works were released from the hermetic environment of the artworld and let loose in the world, at which point they were no longer under the control of the artists, their fate cast to the wind.

Robert Barry’s Inert Gas Series, 1969, consisted of small quantities of Krypton, Argon, Xenon and Helium being released into the atmosphere at specific times on specific locations. This imperceptibly altered the atmosphere. Lawrence Weiner’s THROW ONE STANDARD DYE MARKER INTO THE SEA (from Statements, October 12, 1969) asked the audience to become a participant and complete the work by undertaking a seemingly inconsequential task. The romantic overtones aside (11), ecologically speaking, both works imply that these small gestures, if repeated en masse, can have devastating consequences. Weiner’s THROW ONE STANDARD DYE MARKER INTO THE SEA, while are acting as a script for a future performance, is perhaps more accurately described as an ambient proposition; it does not have to be enacted for us to envisage it or consider its consequences, all we require is knowledge of the statement itself. Once the information is imparted the work is ours to do with as we wish. Thinking in terms of ambient practice, this is an important factor in the propagation of the work. To know it is to ‘own’ it, to tell someone about it is to circulate it. It thus spreads virally much like Barry’s Xenon gas bleeds off imperceptivity into the air.

Barry’s work of this period is rife with ambient gestures 90 mc Carrier Wave (FM), 1968, for example, involved use of a radio wave transmission, something communicative that was nevertheless intangible to the audience. Barry’s Telepathic Piece, 1969, took this elusiveness to greater extremes: “During the Exhibition I will try to communicate telepathically a work of art, the nature of which is a series of thoughts that are not applicable to language or image.” Telepathic communication, of course, has not been proven conclusively, but something similar has been achieved through the development of communications technologies in the form of the cellular phone and in its evolution into ‘everyware’ {Greenfield,Adam}. Today, information processing has diffused into everyday life, and virtually disappeared from view. Telepathic Piece is particularly prescient in the ways that it predicts today’s ambient intelligence technologies and the semantic environment that lets us communicate without boundaries. All 90 mc Carrier Wave (FM) required was the correct receiver to be invented.

The sensual turn in anthropology is central to grasp in relation to such work. The hegemony of vision in contemporary theory is still firmly in place and needs to be reconsidered. It has to be reconsidered not only in relation to our other senses, but in relation to forms of communication that are yet to become available. Contemporary public art might at least engage more actively with all the senses as well as with the ways in which the senses are understood differently in different cultures around the world. Much of the curatorial turn requires us to think of the spaces within which art is installed or enacted as sites of meaning production, emotional investment, and fantasy. But, the spaces in which public art might be situated are not just imagined or discursive cultural regimes but also embodied forms. They have visual, tactile, sensuous, and emotional dimensions. Despite all the focus on public art and more recent ‘critical’ curatorial practice as a generative experiment in social relations, many participatory approaches to public art do little to overcome the Cartesian privileging of mind over body. Ambient culture offers more embodied or sensual ways of knowing and experiencing the world’s smells, tastes, and sounds – the diverse textures of lived experience.

Ambient Ecologies

This raises an important question, if it’s not the artworld, what is the economic context of ambient culture? The conceptualist understanding of cultural as a form of information is also the driving force of the world’s major post-industrial economies. Artists now make extensive use of open source and not-for profit knowledges, distributing their work using radio, the internet, email, wi-fi, SMS and other forms of ubiquitous computing. This effort, seen as a challenge to the conventional economy itself back in the ‘70s, has become the economy. It is the basis of Experience Economy built upon the ecology of the ’creative’ and the cultural services that artists are thought to be able to provide. Artists offer services that few others in the cultural sector can and develop the arts’ unique sweat equity labour market in innovative ways. They exploit freeconomics. {Anderson, Chris} This allows them to fully develop the implications of the cultural turn as far as it relates to the symbolic realm of work and the ‘cultural economy’.

As a cultural ecology, ambient is as diffused as the global market. It spreads virally and can be found everywhere at all times. Ambient intelligence is, in this sense, concerned with distribution, with how to disseminate and spread a cultural practice. To target a globally dispersed audience of initiates and specialists, as opposed to broadcasting to a general audience, is crucial to the success of an ambient venture. This involves adopting and adapting freeconomics from the service sector industries, to disseminate with minimum costs attached.

In terms of an ambient public art practice, these ideas are found in some of the more technocratic sectors, perhaps most famously in the work of RTmark who, via their mock-corporate website -, employ people to carry out minor acts of industrial sabotage. The acts of resistance are often carried out in ways that are invisible to the naked eye (for example, writing graffiti on microchips) or which can only be ascertained non-visually (circuit bending the voiceboxes on GI Joe and Barbie dolls). Subcontracting their artistic labour in like transformation designers (12) means that RTmark can be more far more effective that if they operated alone. Using cell-like organisations they can take on much larger projects, engage with a much wider demographic of participants, and dramatically expand the number of areas in which they operate. The work of groups such as RTmark sits just as comfortably in the world of culture jamming alongside organisations such as Decadent Action (13) – who propose or make use of an array of jamming techniques including cracks, circuit-breaks, hacktivism, virals, infotainment scams and flash mobs (Phone in Sick Day). Culture Jamming is a practice that has its own distinctive history and set of aesthetic criteria, criteria that bind it just as rigidly to the jamming habitus as artists can be bound to the artworld’s values. There are, nonetheless, strategies and aesthetic proclivities which overlap the worlds of art and jamming and which are increasingly important in the wider world. Freeconomics is but one of these strategies.

A freeconomic approach in art has its roots back in the early ’70s when conceptual art dealer Seth Siegelaub was selling work to futures traders {Alberro,Alexander}. A great deal of conceptual art traded as information, something that was understood by brokers trading on the immaterial. Art was re-evaluated as a form of information distributed through a series of networks that constitute the artworld. Immaterial forms of information, including artworks that can be scripted, are more easily distributed and thus more readily available than material culture. Freeconomics is a path of least resistance as far as artists are concerned – to make art without incurring vast start-up, pre-production and production costs (which cannot be raised without first gaining an international reputation as an artist) is a very attractive proposition. It represents a kind of entrepreneurial freedom that is often lacking in the very concept of public sector culture.

This does not mean that practices that engage with ambient intelligences are concerned with entrepreneurialism per se; they are, rather, parasitical in their relationship with mainstream entrepreneurialism. Many works engage with culture jamming tactics. For example, Michael Rakowitz’s paraSITE (1998- ) is a transparent tent that makes use of the hot air from factory vents to keep a homeless person warm at night. The tent functions parasitically in relation to its site, providing a temporary solution to a permanent problem. The desireability of this kind of work also markedly different from conventional forms of public art – for an ambient practice is spread by word of mouth. It is inherently discursive, based on reputation and hearsay. Not being immediately obvious or visible and eschewing permanence (Rakowitz’s work, if successful, would render itself obsolete), the ambient work has to be sought out. Finding it and taking possession of it is part of the experience, it is a form of insider knowledge. Ambient art is therefore concerned with induction and initiation; it functions at the microsociological level. In the hands of the right artists, ambient social interactionism is a powerful psychological weapon to wield.

Ambient art has interpretive flexibility, its use can’t be predicted by its makers; they are shaped by users for users. This means it is a two way process – ambient culture creates new subject positions just as subjects create new uses for ambient culture. Ambient tactics are now supported by a range of public art commissioning bodies, bodies that work with projects rather then objects. What remains to be seen is the extent to which ambient culture has begun to outgrow the project based approach favoured by kunstcorps as a means of managing this tendency, turning this logic against itself. Ambient art projects must be wary of overemphasising the tactical nature of ambient culture, for ambient culture is holistic; to engage with it fully requires participating in an ambient experience rather than simply establishing and supporting ambient tactics. Ambient experience tends to be poorly served by art commissioning that is entirely project or service centred as much of it is due to the demands of governments and private investors. Just as mind and body are one, so are system and experience identical. What the early 21st century demands is a less ocular, less singularly strategic approach to making and commissioning public art. Like everyone else, artists need to devise more holistic ambient ecologies for their practice. They need to be prepared, if and when necessary, to abandon the supportive theories, histories, institutions, patrons and networks that public artists have expected to engage with in the past. Public art needs to come to our senses.


Alberro, A. (2003) Conceptual Art and the Politics of Publicity. Cambridge, Mass., MIT Press.
Anderson, C. (ed) (Accessed 1/9 2008) Free! Why $0.00 Is the Future of Business [Internet], Wired Magazine. Available from: <> .
Capra, F. (1975) The Tao of Physics : An Exploration of the Parallels between Modern Physics and Eastern Mysticism. London, Wildwood House.
Greenfield, A. (2006) Everyware : The Dawning Age of Ubiquitous Computing. Berkeley, New Riders.
Pine, B.J. & Gilmore, J.H. (1999) The Experience Economy : Work is Theatre & Every Business a Stage. Boston, Harvard Business School Press.
Prendergast, M.J. (2000) The Ambient Century : from Mahler to Trance : The Evolution of Sound in the Electronic Age. London, Bloomsbury.
Riegl, A. (1982) Der moderne Denkmalkultus, seine Wesen und seine Entstehung, Vienna, 1903 (English translation: Forster and Ghirardo, ‘The Modern Cult of Monuments: Its Character and Its Origins’. Oppositions. vol. 25, pp. 21-51.
Toop, D. (1995) Ocean of Sound : Ambient Sound and Imaginary Worlds. London, Serpent’s Tail.

Further Reading:
Eno Illuminates Selfidges. (2007) Creative Review. vol. 27, no. 2, pp. 18.
Fontana, B. (2008) The Relocation of Ambient Sound: Urban Sound Sculpture. Leonardo. vol. 41, no. 2, pp. 154-158.
Keyes, J. (2007) X Internet : The Executable and Extendable Internet. Boca Raton, Fla.; London, Auerbach; Taylor & Francis.
Krueger, T. (2008) This is Not Entertainment: Experiencing the Dream House. Architectural Design (London, England). vol. 78, no. 3, pp. 12-15.
Kwon, M. (2002) One Place After Another : Site-specific Art and Locational Identity. Cambridge, Mass., MIT Press.


<p>(1) &#8217;60s ambient culture of this nature is not reliant on the object; it is, rather, born of its absence. The origin of the experience is always to one side or behind you &#8211; it is peripheral and diffused. Since it is in more than one place it is reliant on a network of participants to perceive it (the networked eye) and to communicate its existence. It is the communication across the network that is important, not the object.</p> <p>(2) For example, everything that has appeared to date on the Fourth Plinth of Trafalgar Square in London.</p> <p>(3) See: Prendergast, Mark J. 2000; Toop, David 1995</p> <p>(4) For this reason, it&#8217;s difficult to imagine how they might work with an unsympathetic audience.</p> <p>(5) No obvious social function or practical application, not clearly verifiable or translatable, unproductive and thus difficult to exploit for economic gain…</p> <p>(6) This is a function of exposure to an Experience Economy, wherein the immersive event is fully rehearsed and controlled, removing all elements of chance and the performative and reducing interaction to a series of simple consumer choices.</p> <p>(7) The ear hearing the blood flow through its own membranes.</p> <p>(8) Compare this with Creed&#8217;s ball of paper scrunched up, a multiple that is different each scrunch.</p> <p>(9) It&#8217;s worth comparing this experiential approach to space with minumental works that engage with the aesthetics of homelessness, for example Thomas Hirschhorn&#8217;s transient Altar to Raymond Carver.</p> <p>(10) Information is embodied in the code of virally distributed bodies in today&#8217;s ambient intelligence hardware and software (AmI). AmI such as wearable computing and under-skin <span class=”caps”>RFID</span> and <span class=”caps”>GPS</span> devices anticipate the neuro-hardware of the future, man-machine nanosurgical implants christened &#8216;wetware&#8217; by William Gibson.</p> <p>(11) E.g. dog barking at the moon, Casper David Friedrich, Barnet Newman&#8217;s zips…</p> <p>(12) See Leyland Mashmeyer’s blog &#8211;</p> <p>(13) Decadent Action, BM Decadence, London WC1N 3XX, UK.</p>

Keith Farquhar – Living Logo (Jannica and John) (2008)

Keith Farquhar – Living Logo (Jannica and John) (2008) Free-standing life-sized photograph mounted on card.

Actual-size cardboard cut outs, Keith Farquhar’s most recent photographic works share the manufactured haptic qualities of his sculptures. The latest in the series re-animate the figurative emblems of household brands. The series includes a life-size resurrection of the Levi Strauss & Co trade mark. Two pit ponies put the jean’s rivets and double arc stitching to the test, just like they did it back in the Wild West.

In this work, the famous Kappa emblem – featuring a man and woman reclining back to back – is reconstructed with a little help from his friends Jannica and John. Lingua franca brand loyalty is transfigured into something more familial and capricious, a vernacular camaraderie.

The silhouetted source icon is devoid of detail, reduced in complexity to serve reproducibility, corporate identification, instant recognition and product loyalty. Farquhar’s treatment rehydrates human subjects buried in brandscaping, bringing them back to our sensual world as if by magic. In Farquhar’s hands the image is no longer an ideogram, its interpretation limited to a durable graphic identity; its symbolic value as an emblem has been shattered by turning on the lights.

The iconicity of the Kappa signifier is substituted for an over-determined, baroque image. Giving us more information than we need offers us the right to roam an open semantic field. There’s a touch of innocent camp in this – the curious literalism of Janet and John children’s books and late ’70s BBC kid’s comedy Rentaghost are formative influences – balanced with suppressed dramatic tension. The figures are vacant; maybe they’ve fallen out and aren’t speaking. Jannica’s mouth is secreted, John’s stoic. They both gaze into the distance, giving away nothing. The photo cut-out, in this sense, registers logos rather than pathos, the emotional appeal of the figures neutered by their impassive body language.

Not Only Implausible, But Also Discretionary: Scepticism in the Age of Format Wars

Despite common parlance, globalisation is not a synonym for contemporary neoliberal capitalism; it is rather an historical process of cultural drift and metamorphosis.

It concerns the ways in which lots of small local networks connect to form an international matrix. It’s not possible to opt out of this process now any more than it ever was; we are social animals. To be ‘local’ is to participate in the process of globalisation. Art practice is as globalised now as it always was. Globalisation is the same process that helped spread the ‘gothic style’ and net art alike, the only real difference being the increasing speed and geographic reach of communication. Artists in demand have always travelled, the more visible and successful ones playing pawns in a political game by working for the highest bidder. As they circulate they initiate new networks of knowledge, triggering global transformation.

The density of a place is no mark of its cultural capital (think of how small the population of Florence was during the Quattrocento), no guarantee of parochialism or cosmopolitanism. Where geography once played a strategic role, ports being cauldrons of activity, today attitude is all. Nevertheless, the appropriate civic conditions have and will continue to play a crucial role in the production of some of the world’s greatest artistic feats, allowing artists in turn to establish cultural imaginaries that contribute to a sense of community. To some extent, this has always involved artists playing the local-card-as-global-card. The local argot becomes something that everyone wants (eg the Corinthian column). This process is complex, slow, often cyclical, it doesn’t obey a single form of logic and has no telos (think of the inspired title of Alex Frost’s Tramway exhibition: ‘Format Wars’.) The lingua franca starts life autopoietically as an argot, through internal interactions, self-organising and self-defining of their boundaries. It’s impossible to invent such rich cultural phenomenon out of thin air.

Unfortunately, too many expos attempt to make this impossible task possible. Predicated on the most received of received ideas (a corollary of disregarding scepticism) expos are among the most superficial examples of social engineering. They are a curatorial Esperanto, New Towns on wheels, a symptom of the destructive effects that neoliberalism has had on civic pride and local democracy. Intentionally speaking, they are largely benign in so far as they attempt to suspend these conditions by role playing, offering up a space in which we might imagine that a creative community still exists. In doing so, however, they tend to accelerate the process they rally against since they operate only at the level of representation (what if?) This is due to a lack of consequential engagement with or investment in the relations of production, consumption and distribution; a lack born of a fundamental indifference towards the relative significance of site, sustainability, movement, and audience.

If world-cities are no longer the ‘centre’, which given their global financial importance is highly dubious, then which (former) peripheries are emerging? Do they emerge where expos appear? Not necessarily. The presence of an expo does not denote a healthy local art scene; on the contrary, where there is even the glimmer of a local art world an expo will be sure to drain it dry by annexing venues and absorbing resources. Private finance is uneven. The art market may be bigger than ever but it’s not conducted everywhere; it remains tied to major art fairs and financial centres. If artists have to chase the umbilical cord of gold, as they always have, they aren’t going to spend much time contributing to the culture of the so-called peripheries. Without such a local critical mass an expo is little more than a marketing tool driven by the logic of franchising and outsourcing that underlies the (allegedly) culturally-motivated economic growth that grants world-city status.

Expos won’t help to nurture local gene pools of creativity since they are invariably about buying in the added value of ‘international’ talent – a euphemism that means a consensually globally networked McArt that is ‘foreign’ – to bring in visitors to view what can be seen just as readily elsewhere. This rationale closely compares with how football clubs operate; an economy that requires lucrative sponsorship deals and mass audiences. This isn’t a sustainable cultural policy and is economic suicide. If a city or state can’t establish its own infrastructure (whether as an economy or as a culture) on its own terms (local representation/laws require taxation, culture is a process of vernacular mobilisation that produces and is produced by the social system) then it doesn’t have any basis upon which to exchange culturally with anyone anywhere. Such a place would not be a non-place; it would be a ghost town. This doesn’t matter to those who benefit from this system since they are able to buy mobility, but it does forecast their demise. If you continually outsource your culture where do you go when the world’s local talent has dried up? Where do you find ‘international’ footballers if all footballers play for your home team? What will the producers produce?

Cultural drift today, as since the economic migration spawned by the industrial modernism of the 19th century, flows towards cities. Despite this, the vast majority of people in the world, now predominately urbanites, experience only the most limited geographic, social and economic mobility. This stands in stark contrast to the hyper-geographic diaspora of some artists and curators, a product of their social and economic upward mobility. Any thesis that overstates the significance of mobility is clearly one spoken by those wealthy enough to buy their way out of the limits and responsibilities of citizenship, not to be restricted by the legal peculiarities of any particular state. Such privileged figures are in a powerful position, they have the ability to draw attention to the minutiae of the sites they work in and find correlations between them, facilitating cultural drift and political reform. Curators of expos tend not to do this as the primary objective of expos is to solicit the legitimation of other expos and, ultimately, to recruit their artists and curators.

The audience for such art is not ‘local’ since the very concept of the civic is eliminated in expo networks. Expo audiences are preferable to a genuinely diverse ‘local’ audience since they are easier to convince (optimists don’t need to be converted) being members of a social system that is as closed as the average extended family. This is essentially an attempt at consensus building and canon construction which fails to understand the need for ‘interference’. This is something that tends to happen in the more sensitive feedback loops we find in smaller localised systems that have to respond to the pressures of sceptical audiences not already converted to the cause. Since they filter out such pressures, expos tend to be less representative of the diversity spawned by cultural globalisation. Such juggernauts can’t be flexible and adapt to changes at the ground level, they don’t pick up on vibrations or on the haptic aspects of culture. They offer no means to allow artists or communities to exchange with peers globally on their own terms since they are desperate to establish a linga franca via which all communication must take place. They can’t operate around nuanced concerns (Tunnock’s Tea Cakes in the age of M&Ms) since they are condemned to emulate the mediocre, patronising, homogenous homily of CNN, MTV, the Olympic Games, the World Cup, Bono and Sting. Expos are the stadium rock of our times.

Expocult is mired by a misreading of the process of growth that is Maoist in its revolutionary naivety; leaping from nothing to everything. If art is worth experiencing, it will attract a dedicated audience that is simultaneously ‘local’ and ‘global’ (how could it be otherwise)? It’s not obvious how big this audience has to be to sanction a practice; it’s certainly not a matter of achieving a consensus among audiences. If artists want real diversity they need to work harder, on a smaller scale, with fewer means, to establish global networks that are genuinely (as opposed to metaphorically) rhizomatic. They need to resist the spoils of meta-networks and new canons premised on the possibility of possibility becoming possible. The proliferation of expos is not inherently a bad thing; culture is everywhere, and thus so are the means of distribution. Artists need to reconstruct the field of distribution by taking control back into their own hands. The ‘World Fair’ conception of the expo, which attracts visitors from all over the world, should be condemned to the nineteenth century where it belongs (along with imperialism and modernity). In its place should be a loose network of exchanges between cities, regions and states – temporary confederacies that flow with the movement of ideas and friendships. Redirecting the human and financial resources bestowed upon expos to facilitate what already happens in the host region, to help improve communication, in this way, would be begin to nurture creative responses to globalisation.