The interactive work exhibited in “Language Games,” curated by Sara Diamond and Catherine Crowston, embodies a peculiarly twentieth-century preoccupation with art and revolution playing themselves out in a realm of amusement commodities. As the curators point out, an understanding of the impact of electronic systems of communication and cybernetic devices on social formations is important to our understanding of the emerging world order. This postmodern hyperspace is the cultural echo of that logic of transnational networks and communication flows which characterizes the globalization and cybernation of accumulation. It is their screens, networks, simulations and cybernetic systems that produce Baudrillard’s sense of the technological sublime. By embracing these technologies and strategies, media artists are providing valuable insights into the forces which work to shape and control these new image and data flows.
Language mediates human experience by unifying those who speak it and by expressing the collective ethos of a given society. However, in this exhibition language is not simply a tool for expression; it is also a structure that defines the boundaries of communication and shapes the individuals who participate. Cultural differences are rapidly being undermined by the spread of McLuhan’s electronic “global village,” and by the successes of imperialistic capitalism, which is eroding local traditions and indigenous social groupings. Today, electronically-based language forms increasingly intervene in our lives in ways that resist linear or casual framing.
Electronic systems of communication are changing the fabric of advanced Western societies. New technologies are reaching into the core of the Western subject at the same time that we are witnessing its unraveling under the weight of multinational corporate capitalism. These evolving language forms are increasingly shaping our culture and the subjects within that culture. Global movements of deterritorialization, postcolonialism and technological determinism are creating all sorts of new subjects that cannot be articulated by current methods of psychoanalysis.
Today, it is possible to be in two places at one time; to be in two or more moments of historical space and time; to be in or out of one’s body; and to merge with a machine. The emerging subject is a diffuse, often plural one, capable of a completely different kind of existence. In our postmodern world the line between words and things, subject and object, inside and outside, humanity and nature, idea and matter becomes blurred and indistinct, and a new configuration of the relation of action and language is set in place.
The first piece seen when entering the gallery is National Heritage (1997), a photo-based installation by London artists Harwood and the collective Mongrel. National Heritage consists of four large, black-and-white photographs of a man’s head, and each photograph has a different coloured mask graphically sutured directly onto the face. The photos are accompanied by a framed text panel that discusses a Web site where self-identified racists are encouraged to deposit a digital sample of their skin colour. At the Web site the racist visitor is required to interact with anti-racist content. In considering the overtly racist content of National Heritage it is important to note the project’s relationship to cultural privilege (i.e., occupying space in a public art gallery) and notions of taste. Cultural domination is a by-product of taste which acts as a measure of distance between those of us who have it and those others who do not.
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