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Art, Time, and Technology

by Charlie Gere
Berg Publishers, Oxford and New York, 2006
240 pp. Trade, 50.00; paper, 16.99
ISBN: 1845201345; ISBN: 1-84520-135-2.

Reviewed by Jan Baetens
KU Leuven
Faculty of Arts, Blijde Inkomststraat 21, B-3000 Leuven, Belgium

jan.baetens@arts.kuleuven.be

I have read Art, Time, and Technology with permanent and increasing admiration, pleasure, and excitement. Charlie Gere’s book is, without any doubt, a major contribution to the field of "art and technology" (and sometimes even "art and science") studies, which it innovates in very stimulating ways. Moreover, the author has a straightforward yet very elegant and well-timed style, with a perfect balance between historical precision, social relevance, and critical reflection.

The starting point of the book is triple statement borrowed mainly from the anthropologist Leroi-Gourhan and its further readings by Georges Bataille and Jacques Derrida (although Charlie Gere makes a cautious and, therefore, very clever use of deconstruction): 1) It was not man who invented technology, but technology that created man, 2) This creation of mankind has meant also the birth of history, i.e. of culture, the basic issue being the impossibility to ever bridge human finitude and time’s infinity (the notion of speed and the perception of a permanent speeding-up of history is just one of the symptoms of such this gap, whereas the notion of gap is of course highlighted and theorized, but never in a dogmatic manner, within the Derridean framework of différance), and 3) Art is not an ornament but a social and cultural necessity, which man is using as a way to come to terms with the problem of time.

In a certain sense Art, Time, and Technology tells a great narrative, that of the attempts in modern Western culture —from Morse’s telegraph (an acceptable "alpha" for a study on the intersections of art and technology) to the visual aftermath of 9/11 (an even more acceptable "omega" of a sometimes wildly utopian, sometimes grimly apocalyptic history)— to achieve a coincidence ("time") between culture ("art") and media infrastructure ("technology"). Real-time artistic expressions are then seen as the horizon of such a craving, which aims at blurring the very boundaries between the various dimensions of the cultural, the technological, and the temporal.

Yet the major quality of Charlie Gere’s work is not only to give a well-structured and concise historical survey of some of the landmark events, works, artists, and thinkers of the period under scrutiny, but also to do it in a very special way, which opens room to discussing time in two different ways. First of all, Gere is a wonderful storyteller, who appears able to situate his objects in the density of their historical environment. At the same time, the stories told are never suffocating the reader with an excess of archival material: Gere’s evocations are both "thick" descriptions and "light" narrations, and I don’t know many other examples of authors who are able to tell so many things in so few words and without becoming either pedantic or formulaic. Second, the author follows throughout the whole book a double interdisciplinary thread: On the one hand, the examples chosen make us travel from one domain to another (although Art, Time, and Technology is limited to the field of visual culture, each chapter succeeds in revealing a completely new aspect of it); on the other hand, the discussion of each subfield gathers material from very different horizons (Gere is not afraid of relying heavily on biographical data, which may seem anecdotal at first sight but whose pertinence is always made perfectly clear).

After an extremely useful and illuminating introductory chapter in which Charlie Gere sketches the global intellectual and cultural background of the artistic and communicative phenomena he plans to tackle, Art, Time, and Technology proposes seven chapters that each in their own way offers a key issue of the relationship between the artistic and the technological, from the viewpoint of their longed for but impossible reconciliation in a unified culture: the invention of the telegraph, which Gere analyzes as one of the most surprising consequences of Morse’s ambition to become a history painter (his failure as a traditional artist pushed him into this alternative direction, more appropriated to the dissemination of his quite conservative message in contemporary life); the career of Van Gogh, as the first artist of a technological era in which communication was becoming more important than art, or rather, in which art itself had to transform itself in communication (hence a very clever analysis of Van Gogh’s specific style in terms of "writing"); the importance of space technology and aerial viewing for new ways of painting (from Cubism to Suprematism); John Cage’s famous 4’33" so-called "silent piece", which Charlie Gere reinterprets very convincingly as an echo (pun not intended) of contemporary experiments with radar and surveillance techniques, in which the large public was invited to look for signs (in this case of a Soviet nuclear attack) in an environment deprived of signs; the rise of cybernetics, telematics, and new media since the fifties, which the more utopian thinkers and practitioners of these days saw as a decisive step toward the replacement of art as well as communications by an ongoing and universally accessible "experience" (inclusive those produced within the human body, thanks to new drugs like LSD); the transformation of the official art world and its institutions, now taken over by postmodern structures and environments that privilege a mix of chaos and knowledge to the expense of the traditional work of art (the example here is of course Les Immatériaux); and finally the temporal complexities in new media art that definitely resist modernist dreams of temporal stillness (or, in the vocabulary of Michael Fried, of "presentness", i.e. of "grace").

The biggest merit of Art, Time, and Technology is, however, that this book has been written by just one author. If this would have been an edited collection, one would have praised the exceptional coherence as well as the brilliant diversity of the work. Since all this is the work of just one man, it is only right to double the praise. As it is, one can only admire the breadth of the author’s interests and the depth of his insights, the clarity and sharpness of his working hypotheses and close readings and the politeness that enables him to invite the readers to continue their reading instead of claiming the last word.

 

 




Updated 1st October 2006


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