It was with no small amount of surprise, when starting a new job last year as executive director of The Kitchen in New York, that I found my first order of business to be attending a conference required of hundreds of nonprofit institutions, from modern dance companies to major opera houses, in addition to alternative arts spaces such as my own – all of whom had recently accepted major grants from Bloomberg Philanthropies for the enhancement of cultural organizations’ usage of contemporary technologies and, more specifically, social media.  Not that I felt artistic institutions harbor no need for consultation when seeking to grasp the cultural influence and implications of changes in the digital field. Quite the contrary: Artistic productions ostensibly engaging the subject matter during the past two decades – and curatorial efforts to place such work in context – have been uncomfortably illustrative, often forgetting Conceptual Art’s original impact on our understanding of networked culture, as well as neglecting shifts in the basic constitution of perception caused by the proliferation of platforms for visual media. Rather, most striking to me on this occasion was how clearly certain theoretical assertions in contemporary economics and sociology regarding creative disciplines’ increasingly intimate ties with mass communication and the modern businessplace – or better, the loss of art’s distinctiveness concerning those areas of larger culture – had become so manifest in the field, and even ratified.
Delivering a keynote address for one seminar devoted to capacity building for managers and board members of arts institutions, for example, was Gary Vaynerchuk, creator of WineLibrary.com and, most recently, author of “The Thank You Economy” (2011). There, Vaynerchuk asserts that social media will not be merely a staple for all future commerce but, in fact, fundamental to its character. A relevant passage from his book:
“I think we’re entering a business golden age. It took a long time for people to recognize the value of intellectual capital, whose intangible assets didn’t show up on a spreadsheet, couldn’t be tracked, and couldn’t be expressed in dollars. Now it’s widely understood that intellectual capital is part of the backbone of every organization, and worth protecting. While the ability to form relationships has always been considered a subset of intellectual capital, social media has catapulted that skill into a wealth-building category. In the future, companies with tremendous ‘relationship capital’ will be the ones to succeed. Society is creating an ecosystem that rewards good manners, high touch, and integrity.” 
By themselves, and by Vaynerchuk’s own admission, such ideas are hardly radical today. Certainly, the pages of Texte zur Kunst have been conveying much the same thinking for nearly ten years, with writers on art here regularly calling upon, say, Luc Boltanski and Ève Chiapello’s notion of the “connexionist man” who “relies on his communication skills, his convivial temperament, his open and inquiring mind [, and who] knows also how to give of himself, to be there as and when appropriate, to exploit his presence in personal relations”  (returning to Vaynerchuk for a moment, the entrepreneur says that any obstacles posed by a company’s competitors can be resolved by following a simple directive toward personal authenticity: “Outcare them” ). Similarly, when it comes to such notions of capital and the very operations of social media, Paolo Virno’s words about the General Intellect will seem fitting and familiar to readers of these pages, particularly when he notes that the workplace today demands “skills and aptitudes of a political kind,” with each relationship being generative of others. 
If there is anything truly radical about these ideas, then, it is only that almost everyone readily understands them by now. And most radical about this particular conference was these ideas being conveyed in such straightforward fashion to hundreds of individuals working in organizations from every area of cultural production – being, in other words, literally institutionalized, and at a moment of great introspection among such organizations. For as the privileged place of art is increasingly usurped by creative industries in larger society, arts institutions are forced to make greater efforts to attract audiences. Yet precisely those efforts are apt to contribute to the further erosion of art’s distinctiveness.  In this regard, one might also observe that discussions around the institution of art have long acknowledged its place as a prism for the social spheres of mass culture, with the former necessarily entwined with the latter’s prevailing modes of behavior and production – standing in dialogue with its relations of work and leisure time, for instance; or displaying objects during the industrial age, and turning to performance with the postindustrial rise of service industries. But today this weave is often so taut as to seem a single thread.
If modern arts institutions once took as their foundation a particular bourgeois subject, cultivating on his or her part a kind of critical engagement and particular exchange of ideas with others (to create what might be called a public sphere), one could not help but imagine this individual and public discourse beginning to wane during this particular seminar. Here, Vaynerchuk was followed by Adam Conner, manager of public policy for Facebook, discussing the ideals of “connecting”, but without describing anything beyond the act of connection; the gesture by itself sufficed as content. Following him, Jake Furst, business development manager of Foursquare, spoke on how to create followers and allow “users to experience the world through the lens of a brand” (gone are the days of the flâneur, or poetic walking, creating distance without ascribing uses in turn.) Twitter’s Glenn Otis Brown then discussed “how to create spontaneous gatherings” and use his corporation’s platform as a way to “share experience” – again, with sharing an experience being content in itself (notably, it must be added, he asserted that “re-tweeting is curation with a click.”) Finally, Mark Coatney, whose title is director and media evangelist of Tumblr, remarked that his service offers “the simplest way to share information and connect” by reducing the time between thought and action in microblogging. Again, to receive and transfer, and then receive again in the most fleeting mode of reflection, was understood as a primary mode of operation.
At a major gathering of contemporary arts institutions, in other words, the act of connecting was presented as a virtue unto itself; and to communicate was to “share” an experience, but only by simple assent to a kind of mutually aware online witnessing. Indeed, in seeking to widen an audience for the arts, it seemed the very substance of community was one in which the terms for identity came from without as opposed to from within, deriving solely from momentary cathection and passing affirmation.
Considering how new media platforms change art criticism, one is inclined to give special attention to the concept of e-flux. In this regard, among the most devilish observations of e-flux I’ve ever heard arose in conversation with Sylvère Lothringer of Semiotext(e): “It seems a cry for help.” Humorous as it may be, this is perhaps unfair to say. After all, e-flux cocreator Anton Vidokle, for his part, has said that the agency came about through “no business plan, no strategy, just the pure pleasure of communication and mass communication.”  Conceived in a room at the Holiday Inn in New York’s Chinatown nearly 15 years ago, this business-cum-art project has never truly claimed to be anything more than a news service building on an original impulse to “e-mail some press releases to our friends.” _ Admittedly, Vidokle and his team have suggested on different occasions that culture has been transformed in recent decades to such a degree that the bourgeois subject museums originally took as their premise has been rendered historical, necessitating in turn “a new platform for communications on contemporary art.” _ A platform, in other words, more attuned to a radically changed texture and organization of daily experience; whose impact extends to the constitution of subjectivity in both its public and private aspects. But the simple conveyance of information, selected in a way intended to reflect and denote a spectrum of art events of both local and global import – albeit at a price – seems a straightforward, reflexive basis for the enterprise.
And yet Lotringer’s comment is not necessarily exclusive of this more basic delineation of e-flux’s purpose, particularly as the news agency is just being responsive, as Vidokle would have it, to our contemporary context. For with such continuous distribution of information comes an incredible air of insistence. First, that there is something one needs to know: A sense of urgency is created through repetition – e-flux sends out three announcements per day – and news is, after all, nothing other than that which any given media outlet deems important. In this regard, it’s important to acknowledge that e-flux has declared its aims to avoid hegemonies, seeking to include institutions and regions often overlooked. But attending this contrarian impulse is inevitably another effect of mass e-mails, which places every exhibition and occasion at a kind of representational remove, rendering it a kind of virtual event encountered only through language and image – and only momentarily at that, since any in-boxed missive is all too rapidly covered by the dust of still other information arriving from not only e-flux but also numerous other individuals and entities both near and far. In this way any sense of “needing to know” is quickly overshadowed by a sense of “not knowing”. Even one’s own immediate place in art is at risk of being made somewhat disembodied and fleeting, necessarily incomplete, both present and not, since it is seen only in relation to an elsewhere rarely if ever encountered in any corporeal way.
Arguably, this has always been the case in artistic communities. Works and institutions exist in discursive context and in light of each other, often even reacting explicitly to each other through time, reading and misreading each other’s different propositions and constitutions in such a way that a historical discourse is potentially established.  But herein possibly lies Lotringer’s “cry for help”: e-flux speaks to the desire for a sense of our being in such a context, a sphere in which such meaningful relationships exist, but – in a way that mirrors the precarious position of arts institutions – only at the risk of pressing away that very possibility. Each announcement summons a sense of occasion, and yet that moment, amid a reader’s daily encounters, consists of one page impression preceded and followed by so many others. And so the sensation is perhaps one resembling that which accompanies Freud’s model of fort-da, in which a child throws away an object and then wants to pull it back, showing that when things go away, they can also be retrieved. Only in this instance it is the online medium that delivers the experience, throwing away information and then returning it to the reader online in similar but different form. An algorithm of perpetual and anticipated loss underlies every e-mail.
Such a conundrum of continual reception and loss might now place e-flux precisely at the locus of that spiral, described in “The New Spirit of Capitalism”, of authenticity and non-authenticity when it comes to the long-term legacy of artistic critique. The service upsets hegemonies, but only at a price for any institution that wishes to participate in such a project (here I should add, as an admirer of e-flux’s effect and outreach, that if The Kitchen could afford it, we would participate regularly in its program). Conversely, its business model allows e-flux’s managers to sponsor, in its satellite journal, texts by the most radical artistic and political theorists working today, from Bifo on the poetics of revolution to Hito Steyerl on Occupy Wall Street – putting forward and promulgating ideas in art that have few, if any, other platforms. For me, the situation summons one I lived with for some time in my previous capacity as editor of a private art publication financed by commercial advertisers, but whose very support and circulatory system thereby allowed for the distribution of similar artistic and political theory to unexpected readerships and general areas of culture – at the same time, it should be said, that the “authenticity” of such theory and critique can indeed be the greatest creator and source of symbolic and economic value (and that forwarding such theory and critique in art can nevertheless be attended by certain personal costs). In such instances, and notwithstanding Boltanski and Chiapello’s loophole of being authentic by signaling one’s inauthenticity, any contrapuntal relationship with hegemonic culture is nonetheless in deep dialogue with such culture, setting the groundwork for other protocols. A seeming step away can be quite the opposite, if not just ambiguous, in its effect.
To return to algorithms of reception and loss in light of potential consequences of such ambiguity for critique and its public sphere, a corollary vicariousness accompanies any sense of artistic community online, since its basis then consists largely of shared information – of seeing and then imagining, or on occasion knowing, that one is among others seeing the same thing. The question then remains of what it means to “share” in this regard; and what differences might yet reside in what each person sees even when looking at that same object; and whether those differences are ever conveyed or explored as part of any sustained dialogue. To paraphrase art historian Douglas Crimp, what each of us sees is his or her own individual history. But in the online medium one cannot ignore, ironically enough, that this proposition is often made literal, since what one chooses to read or see inevitably draws similar information to one’s screen as sites customize themselves in real time for individual users, effectively reinscribing taste and desire. Indeed, for all one’s potential “participation” in such an arena, sometimes one’s history seems only to arrive in advance of experience.
Another session of Bloomberg Philanthropies’ conference was very precisely steeped in such a conundrum, taking up the topic of how institutions could construct their websites so they would be found by users online more easily. Put another way, what kinds of keywords and word chains might an institution embed in its site in order to draw the most hits among anyone seeking out a subject generally related to the arts? The question introduces an interesting exercise, since any party wishing to do so needs to have a clearly described sense of program and mission on the one hand – these words, after all, should be intimately related to the very conception and composition of the institution – and yet must also posit an anticipatory sense of what users imagine the art institution to be on the other. In a world where perception does not always match reality, it can nevertheless be much more important. In art, we can discern this phenomenon’s prevalence when so many projects can exist primarily as rumor, or as abstract discourse, or conventional wisdom – or better, to borrow the language of the Web, as general impression. Particularly when first-person, skeptical experience is an increasing rarity, whatever information is being distributed – whether by institutions, news agencies, or artists regarding their own projects – tends to win out (the Internet era could use its Montaigne times ten, declaring that something written is not necessarily true, even in the tight-knit quarters of the arts).
It’s all the more intriguing in this regard that e-flux should have bid for a newly available domain name, .art. Understandably, there is a great deal of competition for the domain, which would be quite valuable, since most entities even remotely related to the field would gravitate to this online denomination – one startup company in Seattle, Donuts, has already raised $100 million in venture capital to support its bid for administrative control. But particularly noteworthy about e-flux’s bid is its assertion that “as millions of people around the world use the Internet to find answers to questions about art, the results they get will, over time, shape their conception of art.” 
Salient here is the contouring of perception, and e-flux’s implicit recognition that the distribution of information – the form in which it arrives and the frame it inhabits – will, as far as our grasp of art goes, supersede the events portrayed there. If this is indeed the case, or even if we wish just to speculate on that possibility, perhaps we will want to suggest that our terminology for the art world itself should be changed. If philosopher Arthur Danto’s famous coinage of the term art world in the 1960s was intended as a sociological category imbued with “an atmosphere of art theory” – wherein an art work necessarily “projects some attitude or point of view” and demands “audience participation in filling in what is missing [in a work]” – today perhaps art domain is, after all, more appropriate. Online, a domain is created by setting in motion certain protocols, by which all operations within will take place. Associations are thereby administered, making connections, on occasion, in advance of those made by any user. In this way attitudes and points of view are necessarily dispersed, or tacitly provided; and what has gone missing is filled in not by the audience but by those rules and procedures embedded online. And then an atmosphere of art theory begins to give way to another one altogether. Criticality becomes more a matter of code.
|“Bloomberg Philanthropies Arts Advancement Initiative. Capacity Building for Managers and Their Boards” took place in New York on September 28, 2011. Special thanks to Ian Erickson-Kery for his research contribution to this text.
|Gary Vaynerchuk, The Thank You Economy, New York 2011, p. 83.
|Luc Boltanski/Ève Chiapello, The New Spirit of Capitalism, New York 2005, p. 115.
|Vaynerchuck, a. a. O., p. 84.
|Paolo Virno, A Grammar of the Multitude, New York 2004, p. 57.
|This also is hardly a novel idea, but the case is put forward eloquently in a short text by Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía director Manuel Borja-Villel in an issue of Artforum devoted to an investigation of the museum in light of pervasive shifts in cultural economies during the past ten years. See Manuel See Manuel Borja-Villel, “The Museum Revisited”, in: Artforum, 48, 2010, pp. 282–283.
|Hans-Ulrich Obrist/Anton Vidokle/Julieta Aranda, “Ever. Ever. Ever.”, in: Liz Linden (ed.), The Best Surprise is No Surprise, Zurich 2006, p. 18.
|Ibid., p. 16.
|Ibid., p. 21.
|The very nature of the Internet and networked culture would make this comparison impossible. For a succinct discussion of how the proliferation of information has made the notion of the public sphere untenable, see Bruno Latour, “Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern”, in: Critical Inquiry, 30, 2004, pp. 225–248.
|See “The Art Domain”, online at: www.e-flux.com/announcements/the-art-domain.