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Art et Internet. Les nouvelles figures de la création

by Jean-Paul Fourmentraux
CNRS Éditions, Paris, 2005
224 pp., illus. 20 b/w. Paper, 20 Euros
ISBN : 2-271-06353-1.

Reviewed by Jan Baetens
Instituut voor Culturele Studies & Lieven Gevaert Research Centre for Photography and Visual Studies


Modern sociology of art has been defending for several decades a strong anti-subjective and anti-objective stance that helped it to institutionalize as an autonomous discipline besides or, rather, against art history, a discipline accused by sociologists of the hypostasis of the subject (the creative genius) as well as the object (the supratemporal work of Art). This Bourdieusian sociology of art is defined by its double attempt to disclose the social underpinnings of the public’s taste, on the one hand, and the role of the networks that decide what will be accepted or on the contrary rejected as art, on the other hand. Reading against the grain of this still dominant paradigm, Jean-Paul Fourmentraux’s book relies on a quite different perspective that takes as its central issue the interaction of subject and object. Clearly inspired by the actor network theory (ANT) as promoted in art theory by Antoine Hennion (author also of an excellent introduction to this volume).

Art et Internet is a fascinating journey into a "hybrid" the author calls "the artwork at work" (or "in action", and in French as well as in English to nod to Latour’s "science in action" should be clear). The main conviction of the book is that Net Art——i.e. art produced not just by means of the new digital media, but for those media——is a complex structure in which the various "actors" (some of them human, like the software engineer, the artist, or the museum curator; others not, like the hardware, the copyright legislation, or the available infrastructure of an exhibit) are in a permanent relationship of mutual reshaping and negotiation. Complexity and hybridity, however, are not synonymous of confusion and blurring of all boundaries. While rejecting the myth of the autonomous object and the autonomous subject, Jean-Paul Fourmentraux analyzes what happens with subject and object in the context of Net Art.

His analysis combines two dimensions. The first is syntagmatic and chronological and divides the process of the work in action in three major phases, which of course never follow each other in a purely mechanical or linear way (like in all cybernetic structures, there is room for feedback, loops, and internal redefinitions): 1) conception: how is the work "invented", how do the first ideas take form and what are the (creative) constraints of the technological, cultural, and social environment; 2) disposition: how is the first draft implemented in a material structure having its own software and interface and how do interface and software influence the very idea and form of the work; 3) exhibition: how is the Net Art-work communicated to the public in an artistic context, and how is it circulated in this material field? The second dimension is paradigmatic and examines the actors involved in the process, and their ever-shifting relationships (contrary to what generally happens in "traditional" sociology of art, these relationships are not simply thought of as power relationships, they are seen instead as interaction, i.e. a combination of collaboration, tension, and negotiation).

The result of the inquiry is inspiring reading, from the very first to the last page of the book. Art et Internet is a perfect mix of methodological clarity, conceptual sharpness, theoretical finesse, and intellectual challenge. Jean-Paul Fourmentraux describes in full detail what occurs in the "expanded studio" (to paraphrase Rosalind Krauss’s famous expression), without ever taking into account the completely different questions of aesthetics, of value judgments, and subjective appreciation. At the same time he also introduces a double theoretical rethinking of the work of art in action on the Internet. First, by proposing at each of the three levels of his analysis a taxonomy of actors and operations that is incomparably richer than what had been done until now. Exemplary in this regard is the rereading of notions such as interaction and interface. Second, by focusing on the complement "in action" or "at work" rather than on the word "art" itself. The versatility and complexity of the artwork on the Internet is not projected on the work itself (this might imply the danger of an essentializing vision of these new art forms). Instead it is the work itself that slowly fades away. More precisely, Fourmentraux argues that the work as the focus of both the action as the attention is replaced by something completely else, namely the ongoing and never ceasing treatment of the artwork by many actors in multiple contexts that are mutually interacting.

In short, a major contribution to the transfer of ANT theory to the sociology of art, and a book which one hopes to see soon in English translation.




Updated 1st May 2006

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