by Joseph Nechvatal

Virtuality has become the capital trend in France. This past winter I discovered, at a topsy-turvy round of conferences and exhibitions, just how broadly the stupefying effects of dematerialized economics have been embraced by French culture; mainly it seems for their marketable eccentricity and luxe. By "virtuality" I mean the generation of a space of action within a person's imagination that substitutes for an actual, physical space. Virtuality is a leap of faith, a constellation of perceptions and, fundamentally, an artistic phenomenon, which is what I suppose attracts the Cartesian French. Virtuality exists between the ears--that is in the mind's eye, which is where the perceptive French prefer to have their experiences.

I am writing this dispatch from a hotel-room-terrace in Morges, overlooking beautiful Lake Geneva and the Alps, in Switzerland--that land of good sense, discretion and monetary soundness. As I write, I realize with a start how facile is my immersion in the French virtual world, predisposed as I am to a mooniness quite at odds with my supposed American practicality and stoicism. Thinking back, I realize now that I decided to make sport of my wintry Parisian melancholy by heading toward the sunny South to investigate some of the unexamined freedoms which the new digital technology might bring to bear on the realm of the senses, the land of ardor.

My lackadaisical and opportunistic escapade actually began while still at home in Paris at the "Art ou publicite?" exhibition, a "retrospective" of painted images used by Coca-Cola to advertise its sugary, brown product, as well as an assortment of video clips culled from the archive of Coke commercials--all in the Louvre, no less! Granted the "exhibition" was mounted in Le Carrousel du Louvre, which resembles nothing so much as a winsome Shopping Mall in Oak Brook, Illinois, but still....Now we have the Louvre simultaneously according credibility to commercial art, taking the zing out of Pop Art, and even removing that question mark from the show's title! Downright infelicitous, the exhibition struck me as an egregious breach of decorum, of which the French are usually most exacting. Such a show might have been expected to provoke nothing but incredulity and airy disregard, just as the Centre-Pompidou exhibition, "Feminin-Masculin, le sexe de l'art," might affront Puritanical, American standards. But exhibition-visitors seemed pleased with this display of crass commercialism.

I, on the other hand, found it tormenting. This response paled compared to that generated by the deeply sentimental display of obeisance paid to bad taste, American-style. Worse still, the show's investigation of the virtual unreality of American commercial art suckered me into the commercial-cultural domain. Off I soared towards the Mediterranean and into the architectonics of cyber-myth and virtuality also known as "cyber-opportunity." How plentiful, it seems, are the occasions to profit!

MILIA (the International Publishing and New Media Market) is the premier get-together for multimedia publishing professionals from around the world. This year's third annual confab in Cannes, which ran from February 8-12, was focused on online opportunities for cultural marketing, making it the perfect place to procure and sell rights, form strategic alliances, scout fresh talent and negotiate distribution agreements.

For four wine-soaked days I explored this showcase of new projects from high-tech companies frantically trying to establish their international identities, and, in the process, make more contacts in just four days than in the other 361 days of the year. Yes, I was there to discover the hot, new market trends. But given the abundance of champagne, and topless and g-strung honeys and hunks peppering my mid-day siestas, the new electronic economy became for me what the information commodity has all along revealed itself as: a process of quantitative intoxication, an erotic dream.

But when one has good sex or a profound aesthetic experience one loses track of time, space and physical reality, and enters another state of mind. Great sex or painting shatters the sphere of actual time, transforming it into the deep space/time of virtuality. When I looked at the Art on (flashy) display at MILIA '96, this never even came close to happening. Although bristling with the rhetoric of transgression, the aesthetic position of most of the new cyberworks is only a summary of established visual prejudices and familiar strategies. But consider this a cautionary tale. Stepping back and pondering the debased image of Art the new electronic media assumes, we might begin to formulate a response to the calamitous union of art and money with which we must (increasingly) contend.

My second foray into the the sun took me to Monaco for Imagina. This conference purported to address how technology is transforming our economic existence. From February 21-23, I was treated to discussions of virtual banks and cyber casinos, in other words the new computer-graphics-laden world of "art" and high-end special effects. Fatuous and glittery commercial art adorns communication furthering the nexus of cybercash and even "free" money; witness casinos opening in the Bahamas and virtual lotteries organized in Lichtenstein. Imagina attendees pondered First-Virtual-CEO Lee Stein's remarks about his bank--the first truly virtual one of its kind--and Digicash-CEO David Chaum's discussion of economic dematerialization and even the potential loss of the nation-state's traditional autonomy in the minting of money. We also viewed Toy Story's state-of-the-art, 3D animation. But the most enticing thing I saw, which had nothing to do with art today, was the creation of a facsimile of the Cosquer cave recently discovered in Provence. One of the major painted caves of the Paleolithic era, its inaccessible, partly submarine location prompted the Ministry of Culture and the city of Marseille to commission a laser survey of the cave in order to create a virtual reality facsimile.

The non-problematized use of the metaphor of "space" within the concept of "cyberspace" abounded at Imagina. The chief pitfall in this unreflective application of spatial metaphors is that they implicitly reiterate the asymmetries of domination inherent in the established public discourse, something I'd discovered when I spoke at a colloquia organized by the Association of Economic Financiers as part of the Virtual Finance conference at the Bourse (or Paris stock exchange), in February. After four hours of cybercash-chat I offered the money handlers my definition of "virtuality," an artist's vision. To speak to them in terms they might understand, I suggested that in a rudimentary economy, the commodity object represented a surplus beyond the necessities of survival. The production of commodities--including art for the past 500 years--implies the exchange of varied products among independent producers.

For centuries, this remained a sort of marginalized craft production, in which its economic nature was masked. But when information-commodity production met the social conditions of large-scale information distribution--with the newly added element of agile, post-communist capital--the "virtual" seized dominion everywhere, yielding what I called "the parsimonious daydream of profit wish fulfillment." The audience laughed feebly, so I attempted to reassure them by explaining that similar considerations apply to the ambition to make art relevant to contemporary monetary concerns.

What makes art that deliberately comments on its time by entering directly into the mass marketplace more than entertainment, I wondered aloud? As Goethe put it, "only the mediocre talent is always the captive of its time and must get its nourishment from the elements that time contains." This said, the insistence that art reflect the tangled (virtual) realities of contemporary life inside the new-media, corporate-infrastructure is a disenchantment that most cyber-artists would do well to embrace. To not do so is a prescription for the production of entertaining ephemera and kitsch masquerading as bona-fide art.

Joseph Nechvatal is currently exhibiting robot-assisted paintings, "ALT.SEX," at Gallery In Situ in Aalst, Belgium. It is a collobarative project with the artist Matthias Groebel.

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