Thursday, July 1, 2010

Notes on The Weak Universalism / Atemporality for the Creative Artist

Here are my notes on an essay I read recently by art theorist Boris Groys entitled 'The Weak Universalism.' I'd love to get some discussion going about this essay and/or the Bruce Sterling essay I link to further down.

Groys: Artists are messengers of atemporality: alert temporal culture of approaching atemporality
usually harnessed modern technology (technology compresses time) & exaggerate to illustrate, democratic methods

two kinds of images: Strong and Weak

Strong: Contemporary. Visceral. Appealing. Historical. Culturally Relevant.

Weak: second meaning, subtle, driven by technology, unfamiliar. Weak images function regardless of temporality.

weak images turn strong over time if popular; otherwise both types fade and die. Consider Fountain (sigh)

Early A-G artists sought to locate weak signs and incorporate them into images to make atemporal images. 'signs of the times.'

Different groups did this in different ways: Kandinsky etc. w/ abstraction, Dadaists w/ collage, Constructivists w/ photography, Modernists with Jungian soul-searching, Postmodernists w/ appropriation and conceptualization

as time has gone by (acc. to Groys) temporality has become more compressed. I would argue that this compression is due not simply to technology, but specifically to our ability to record and share information.

Groys: this affects how we produce art and objects - less fads, more skepticism, turnover. We approach what he calls 'atemporality.'

Bruce Sterling says we have reached 'early atemporality.' two cultural modes operating - 'gothic high tech' castle of existing physical structure and 'favela chic,' bazaar of avant garde (internet). We know we are here, but we don't know what the rules are, much less how to challenge them. I say then that the A-G is spread thin and is hard to spot.

Atemporality and culture fragmentation are due to recording technology & widespread communication networks. fragmentation means that it is harder than ever for the A-G to (a) be cohesive and (b) communicate with cultures about atemporality. Weak and strong signs differ per culture.

Atemporality and fan cultures mean that we have more strong images than ever - everything is strong in some context. Fan culture amplifies itself as it becomes more distinct from other fan cultures. So it doesn't make sense for art market to follow A-G working on what weak signs remain - strong images sell, have always sold. Weak gestures are hidden within the strong. Now that everything approaches becoming strong, no reason for market to exhaustively look for talent.

Artists have turned toward another use of art now that the internet allows images to become strong and ubiquitous quickly - a tool for communication. this use of art focuses on the creation and manipulation of the absence and presence of strong images in order to convey attitudes and concepts (weak signs existing in juxtaposition/recontextualization). often used in conjunction with text, image macros, memes and illuminated text sets mood in conversations.


  1. Just a quick comment to get things rolling and show that I saw the post(it's dinner time here). I keep thinking about that weak/strong image stuff, too, ever since I first heard about it via AFC. I need to go ahead and read the whole essay. I'm trying to make art now that's about the technology that allows us to produce so many images (if you look at my latest painting, a bit rough but it shows where I'm about to go). Is your digital art responding to this essay, too? Do you feel like it's possible to make "strong" digital art or art in general? (Are LOLcats that get forwarded millions of times strong images?)

  2. (Are you there?) Here is a key quote for me. Time is of great concern to me. Videos and performances take time that people don't really have. Or they have time, but they'd rather spend it on movies, TV, and the internet. "Living within modernity means to have no time, to experience a permanent scarcity, a lack of time due to the fact that modern projects are mostly abandoned without being realized—every new generation develops its own projects, its own techniques, and its own professions to realize those projects, which are then abandoned by the following generation. In this sense, our present time is not a postmodern but rather an ultramodern time, because it is the time in which the scarcity of time, the lack of time, becomes increasingly obvious. We know it because everybody is busy today—nobody has time."

  3. (Sorry I'm hashing this out on your blog. I wish some others would come talk about this, too.) Another important point. "Popular art is made for a population consisting of spectators. Avant-garde art is made for a population consisting of artists." Now that I'm finally reading the essay, I see that "strong" and "weak" didn't mean quite what I thought they meant. "Weak" isn't necessarily bad. It's sort of hunkering down for survival. I can kind of understand that.

  4. K.,
    I've been trying to respond to this essay in a couple of ways in my work. One way is I've been concentrating on mundane subjects to reveal 'weak' qualities of the medium (Youtube videos). Another way - and this is why I'm on dump so much - is I'm investigating strong images. The game at dump in Groys terms is we all post images, weak or strong, which other people riff off of and make stronger and stronger within the dump culture. The funny thing is that most of these superstrong dump images are weak images when seen from outside - it's all about context! So I'm dabbling with making images that bridge that gap, or images that get/would get super strong really fast, regardless of community.

    Here's my theory on LOLcats: the first funny cat picture with a caption was weak, and became stronger as it circulated around. People riffing off of the image made stronger images that outcompeted the first image, and these snowballed into the LOLcats we know and love today. Eventually, though, the LOLcat images hit a plateau and couldn't get stronger. Maybe this is because they had become so ubiquitous that we invented a term for them, I don't know. But you can't make LOLcat images stronger than they are now, generally, and good luck making a weak captioned cat image nowadays. It's almost like evolution; we're selecting for traits in LOLcats.

    As for the time quote, I didn't really feel for Groys' complaints about not having enough time. He's talking more about personal time, whereas Sterling is talking more about modernity in terms of time periods, movements, fads etc. I'd have to go with Sterling on this one.

    This part:
    "...every new generation develops its own projects, its own techniques, and its own professions to realize those projects, which are then abandoned by the following generation." the best part of that chunk, IMO. I *would* like to be filled in on what the previous/currents projects are that he's referencing.

  5. We jut missed each other! Yeah, weak is not a bad thing. It seems to indicate potential. Now I'm thinking about images that chans call "exploitable": (NSFW)

  6. I just finished the Sterling essay. Also very interesting, but a bit less clear than Groys, IMO. Sterling is talking about timelessness (atemporality), and yes, Groys is talking more about personal time. Those are really two separate topics. I agree that culture and society are becoming more atemporal all the time. Everything gets revived, retro is here to stay and each person can more or less recreate the time period they want to live in, and mix together several time periods at once. (That sounds kind of like plain old postmodernism...)

    Meanwhile, Groys is talking about personal time, and I strongly feel that time is not something to be overlooked. We all have this *illusion* of unlimited personal time, but of course it's really not. I think that's important for artists to keep in mind about their potential viewers. Which would the average person do, go to the art gallery or pop in a video game? (If it really was just a choice between those two things.) I'm trying to figure out how to make art appealing to a few more people without dumbing it down so much that it's not art anymore. That's kind of my struggle. But then, like Groys also said, the popular art (or spectacle) is for the spectators, the challenging art is for other artists. (I interpret "artist" to mean anyone who is manipulating their environment in an interesting, sometimes useful way. So that includes people like organic small farmers, along with musicians, writers, game designers, etc.) Perhaps I shouldn't worry much about engaging people so dull that they don't make or do anything interesting, they just sit and watch everything like the people on Idiocracy. Anyway, my point is, time matters for artists because people end up spending most of their personal time on whatever gives them the most gratification. For a creative person, that can be puzzling out a weird art exhibition (and then playing video games), for the average dumb, lazy slob (or overworked cubicle rat) that can be just skipping the art and going for the nice easy video game.

  7. That's a really good point about viewers' personal time. I hadn't thought about it that way. I always think, "who is the viewer?", but rarely think "why is the viewer giving this work their time?"

    The division between art for artists and art for the masses is a tricky one, and not many artists (esp. Postmoderns) stay cognizant of it. Net art is interesting to me because the good work is made from popular images/circulated images, and can appeal to both artists and the general public. It is subtle, and it gets a lot more eyeballs than museums do/ever will.