Bright Lights Film Journal

The Valorized Artist: Incorporation into the “Perpetual Art Machine” [PAM]

Art for [PAM]’s sake

The “Perpetual Art machine” [PAM] is a new media project begun in 2005 that presents the work of a large number of video artists as pieces inside a single installation.1 The project became an attraction at the SCOPE Art Fairs in the United States in 2005 and 2006, continuing into 2007 (the date of writing). The organization of this video-presenting system, as an online presence, resembles social networking sites such as MySpace, FaceBook, etc. but with more specific membership and target demographic: video/new media artists, galleries, museums — the international contemporary art world and its attendant market. [PAM] explains its identity on the website:

What is [PAM]?

Overview

Perpetual Art Machine is a community for video artists, curators, writers, therorist, educators, collectors, and enthusiasts.

Perpetual Art Machine is an online gallery and database of video art.

Perpetual Art Machine is a traveling video installation.

The website feeds our installation machines. Both the database and video content work together at exhibition venues displaying works simultaneously and individually. The works play off each other, informing each other by association or differentiation, highlighting through the display system their individual qualities.

Please Read our Perpetual Art Machine Prospectus.pdf 577.89 Kb if you are interested to find out more or would like to bring the [PAM] installation to your venue.2

This explanation, however, is incomplete in significant ways. The description used for the public art world display of [PAM] is very different — for example, for SCOPE New York 2007:

Perpetual Art Machine [PAM] is a living global archive in excess of 1000 21st century video art works from over 600 artists living in over 60 countries. Launched in December 2005, [PAM] resulted from an innovative art and technology collaboration between artists Lee Wells, Raphaele Shirley, Chris Borkowski and Aaron Miller. As a living archive, [PAM] has attracted to its website over 100,000 visitors and more than 3.8 million hits, with a daily average of 600 new visitors. More than an online archive, [PAM] combines its global database of video artists with leading edge software design and a duel interactive touch screen system, giving audience members / users of [PAM] the unique opportunity to be their own curator and exhibitor of video art. This takes part in large scale and immersive installations where the work is projected on surround screens. Recently [PAM] has exhibited at numerous film and art festivals including Arts Basel, the Split Film Festival, Croatia and Scope Art Fairs in New York, London, Miami and the Hamptons. [PAM] has also been invited to curate a select screening of Latin American and Chinese artist as part of a special project to the 2nd Moscow Biennial called “We Are Your Future,” chief curated by Ethan Cohen and Juan Puntes. Installations of [PAM] in California, Washington DC and London are currently in negotiation.

What is clear from this text is that the “1000 21st century video art works from over 600 artists living in over 60 countries” are significant only because there are so many of them; the actual identity or quality of work by these artists is not important to the project’s success — only the quantity.

However, the organizers assume a much greater significance than that of these artists; they are specifically identified and their involvement is required to present work from [PAM]. Instead of eliminating the role of curators, their presence overshadows the artists whose work is exhibited as the “art machine”: the “collaboration between artists Lee Wells, Raphaele Shirley, Chris Borkowski and Aaron Miller” is of the greatest importance since they are the organizers. While [PAM] clearly employs expensive hardware and software to achieve its result — a common fact in all “new media” presentations of any type — its success depends not on the work of the organizers, but on their ability to manipulate and assume (implicit) authorial control over the work of other artists. While the audience may be allowed to manipulate the controls of the machine, they are not its designers and the decisions about how to present the work overshadows the individual contributions to the project. Unlike other curated programs, [PAM] is not curated — the artists involved have their work reorganized and juxtaposed in a montage fashion with other work, consequently changing the meaning and form of the videos shown in a way inconsistent with curated programs of work; the model of a “re-mix” or other appropriation is more apt in understanding the form of this presentation. This fact is highlighted as the purpose and attraction that is [PAM]. Unlike other curatorial programs where the artists included are the significant factor, [PAM] is based on the valorization of artists by the artist-curators who organize the program. It is less important who the contributors are than that they have been subsumed into a mass of 1,000 videos. This shift in emphasis initiates a valorization process that converts the artists involved as “exhibitors” into commodities whose value serves the curators of the project.

The claim that [PAM] gives its “audience members / users of [PAM] the unique opportunity to be their own curator and exhibitor of video art” may be true of the interaction with the installation, but it is a misleading explanation of what is actually happening with the project. But what is most striking about the repeating pattern of artistic reuse is the increasingly strident claim that this approach constitutes a “questioning of authorship,” especially evident in the later forms that appear at the end of the century around the idea of “appropriation art.”3 It is against this background that the reappearance of the image of domination over materials — in the case of [PAM] through the subordination of artists to their curatorial organizers — should be considered.

The model for [PAM] is not the open-ended curatorial projects of conceptual art, but rather the more immediate forms of YouTube, GoogleVideo, MySpace, and other forms of social networking driven by commercial software and forming substantial commercial properties. In every case, value accrues to these properties based on their ability to organize authorship and contrive enticements to attract an audience willing to generate the “content” necessary for the database that is the “social network.” These models encourage authors to actively seek to add their works to these sites. As with these commercial social networking forms, [PAM] participates in the conversion of unpaid labor into commodity. [PAM] does not generate income for the artists who are incorporated into (are) its database. These artists and their work are appropriated by the curator-organizers: Lee Wells, Raphaele Shirley, Chris Borkowski, and Aaron Miller.

Valorization proceeds through this appropriation process. The similarities between [PAM] and its “commercial” brethren is explicit in the organization of the system: the number of times a given video, image, etc. has been shown is ranked. [PAM] has also begun giving awards4 to its most popular contributors, thus imitating the more explicitly promotional aspects of commercial sites: Technocrati.com ranks blogs based on how many other blogs link to their contents; Google.com’s search results are weighted not just by relevance to the search terms entered but by linkages; advertising rates on websites is based on “click-through” — how many people follow the ad link — not simply on audience delivered as with traditional print and television media.

Thus [PAM] constitutes an explicit art world adaptation of the commercial valorization process. What is troubling with this project is that instead of critiquing or even prompting an awareness of this valorization, it transparently reproduces it for the gain of the organizers. The enticement for this presentation does nothing for the artists included in the project; instead it manipulates the fantasy that economist Hans Abbing has described as “the risks of some being reduced at the expense of others”:

Due to informal barriers the arts are structured and partly monopolized, but the structuring is informal and difficult to discern. Informal monopolization causes a reduction in the risks for artists in privileged areas, while risks are higher for artists outside these areas.5

The fantasy that [PAM] brings into play is that of presentation at the exclusive art fairs such as SCOPE for artists who would not otherwise exhibit there. However, the artists included in the project are not credited as exhibiting at these fairs — the organizers of the project receive credit, and thus are positioned to reap rewards from [PAM]. The artist is valorized by this transformative fantasy into information, not as consumer or producer (hence a subject with human agency), but as a part of a commodity, the Perpetual Art Machine. Achieving the status of “author” within a database culture means a transfer of role from actor to commodity — this is the end-result of the valorization process, not simply the maintenance of previously valuable commodities produced by the more common, empirical interpretation of author-as-producer, but as an extension of authorship as commodification, of author as commodity. In the language of the hacker/gamer community, the artists involved in [PAM] are “pwn3d.”6 The Perpetual Art Machine can be understood as an uncritical embrace of the more negative tendencies of the digital aura.7 By translating the artists and their video work into valorized commodities without compensation, [PAM] presents the artists it incorporates as a token of exchange.

  1. In the interests of full disclosure, the author is one of these participating artists. The decision to join this project was made with the goal of examining it from the “inside” in the manner of a sociological study’s participant-observer. []
  2. Unless otherwise noted, all texts and statements quoted from [PAM] are taken from the projectwebsite, http://www.perpetualartmachine.com/. Any spelling, grammatical, or other errors on these pages are original to the version referenced in writing this paper. []
  3. There are many sources for this claim, but it figures prominently in Douglas Crimp’s “Appropriating Appropriation,” in On the Museum’s Ruins (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1995), 126-136. []
  4. The first awards were offered in the fall of 2006. []
  5. Abbing, Hans. Why Are Artists Poor? The Exceptional Economy of the Arts (Amsterdam; Amsterdam University Press, 2004), 276. []
  6. According to Wikipedia, in gaming, the term means “to own, have ownage over, and/or soundly defeat an opponent. It is sometimes used for taunting of an in-game enemy and gloating over victories. It can also be used, especially by non-gamers, in the context of getting ‘pwned’ by The Man” — i.e., co-opted. []
  7. For a full discussion of the ‘aura of the digital,” see Michael Betancourt, The Aura of the Digital, in CTheory, td041 – 9/5/2006, http://www.ctheory.net/articles.aspx?id=519. []