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The Next Thing:  Art in the Twenty-First Century

by Pablo Baler, Editor
Farleigh Dickenson University Press, Madison, NJ, 2013
164pp. /Illus. Trade, $65.00
ISBN:  978-1-61147-451-0.

Reviewed by Giovanna L. Costantini

In his Introduction to The Next Thing:  Art in the Twenty-First Century, an illustrated anthology of theoretical essays on contemporary experimental art, editor Pablo Baler claims “Nine O’Clock” sounds the knell for an historical paradigm shift in art towards displacement and alienation tantamount to a Lautréamontian tremor of intellectual estrangement.  To support this contention, he sites tendencies in contemporary art since the 1990’s that include attempts to dismantle master narratives; socio-cultural crises of identity; explosive reactions to social injustice; blurred trans-disciplinary boundaries; destabilized ontological contexts resulting from the interpenetration of real and virtual worlds; indeterminate relationships between the past, the present and the future; political activism and tactical intervention; bioethical transgression and incipient indifference.  The collection interrogates not merely the question of “What is Art?” but what it means to be Human and what constitutes Meaning at all in an increasingly dystopic, anti-aesthetic existence he likens to an alternative “posthuman” biotechnical condition.

Essays explore such subjects as conceptions of futurity; art as socio- political agent-provocateur; perception in an age of simulated and reproductive media; art’s globalization and pluralism amid assimilated histories, mutated traditions, migration; post-colonial and feminist narratives; performativity, intervention and installation as political strategies; spatial sensibility, internal audience and subject/object intersections; axonometric perspective, authorship, the impact on art of political crisis and ecological disaster; Nicolas Bourriaud’s relational aesthetics; post-criticality; ana-materialism, uncertainty, negation and programmable learning; evolutionary biology (Richard Dawson), self-replication and artificial intelligence.  International authors range from noted visual artists, cultural theorists and novelists to editors, art critics, contemporary philosophers and interdisciplinary professors based in Pakistan, India, UK, Israel, Australia and the U.S. with exemplary artworks culled from an intercontinental swathe extending from Southeast Asia to South America.

Widely informed by philosophy and metaphysics, psychoanalytic, cognitive and postmodern theory, i.e. Gilles Deleuze, Frederic Jameson, Jacques Derrida, Theodor Adorno, Viktor Shklovsky and Melanie Klein, but also Hegel, Heidegger, Descartes and others, Baler casts his “interrupted reading” in the guise of a fiction for which such literary heralds as Jorge Luis Borges, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Georges Bataille provide touchstones.  Forcefully argued from ethical/ontological premises “deeply rooted in our bodies,” Baler considers all meaning to be “directly dependent on our biology,” hence predicated upon bioethical responsibility and moral exigency in the determination of future life.  He offers Stelarc’s freakish transplants, blended biomaterial, disembodied organs, commodified hybrids, cyborgs, prostheses and systems of code as remotely accessed, electronically manipulated, genetically modified fractal flesh. Such ventures expose the risks that can accompany secular humanism and artistic experimentation, i.e. that ethical considerations may in the future become obsolete, artifactual or purely imaginary.  Drawing a clear distinction between ontological speculation and ethical responsibility, Baler cautions that we “participate in an existence that transcends the limits of the merely human and extends beyond, towards all species:  the living, the semi-living, and the non-living.”   To an era in which technology far exceeds the capacity of the human brain in its reiterative capacity, ‘Johnny’ Sue Golding ponders whether the structural logistics of knowledge systems and sequential loops of algorithmic formulae may one day slip-slide into “synthetic unities” construed as judgments.

This collection joins comparative studies in areas of aesthetic and ethical theory, cultural studies, moral philosophy and contemporary criticism that include works by authors such as Albrecht Wellmer, Barbara MacKinnon and Maria Hynes.  Other tangents extend to writers such as Keller Easterling, who applies network theory to political infrastructures, artist-theorists like Suzanne Anker, whose many publications explore intersections of art and the biological sciences, including the initiatives of New York’s School of Visual Arts “Nature and Technology Bio Art Lab,” and artists such as Lynn Hershman Leeson.  While The Next Thing identifies one tributary of art and meta-theory that courses through the 21st century, its prospect remains partial in relation to the larger scope of contemporary art, which includes work that eschews sensations of disenfranchisement, fear and disequilibrium––this among artists of a more positivist inclination who enjoin advanced scientific concepts and methodologies (i.e. neurodiversity, genomic biology, civil engineering, marine ecology, nanotechnology) in forms of expression less philosophically inclined to postmodern fragmentation.  We can point for example to works by Pierre Huyghe, Amy Balkin, Christopher Williams, Peter D’Agostino Ricardo Dominguez, D. Fox Harrell.

To the extent that art engages with our cognitive-affective understanding of the world and the value we confer upon its disparate particles and processes, the significance of this study is that it promotes critical discourse within the sciences and the humanities towards the preservation and enhancement of human life in an evolving universe.  It does so through advocacy of consensual standards of ethical responsibility in the arts and the sciences that do not “recur to life itself as a medium” (Baler 128).  Such standards, arguably culturally relative, historically evolutionary and under certain conditions variable, yet hold the capacity to advance human endeavor beyond a level of instrumentality, provocation and self-realization to more naturally integrative ways of exploring and re-conceptualizing reality.  For art, this implies reaching beyond novelty and experimentation, critique, réportage and spectacle towards aesthetic coherence.  In science, such striving has been expressed by E. O. Wilson in terms of consilience, interlocking causal relationships across disciplines such as to extend to moral reasoning. The danger, warned Martin Heidegger, is of modern technology exploiting man’s unique ability to employ techne for the purpose of revealing life’s interconnected truths as “an open place” in which art aspires to poiesis, a clearing resonant of man’s essential humanity.  Baler would concur, it would seem, in his invocation of Duchamp’s identification of an artist in The Creative Act as one who “from the labyrinth of time and space, seeks his way out to a clearing.

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