Imagining a different Mass Culture

A while ago in Manhattan's Little Italy, I went with friends to a small restaurant that was nearly empty. Soon after our drinks were served, more people began arriving and their numbers grew consistently for two or three minutes until the entire place was filled. Like clockwork, cheap house wine was delivered to each table and a man who resembled the late-Elvis began testing his Casio keyboard. Before long, the entire group was singing the theme song from (the 70's T.V. situation comedy) the Brady Bunch, for lack, I presume, of any other festive and shared culture.

Most people in advanced industrialized societies have become so accustomed to having their art and entertainment delivered to them as a commodity that they have trouble producing much of anything that constitutes more than an echo of the mass culture. As "popular" musicians become ever more entangled in product marketing, the experience of music as a phenomenon generated by family members, locally, and for friends, continues to deteriorate. This has consequences for a network art practice, for it may be that such practice should strive to awaken a dormant creative capacity which can in turn engage history and cultural tradition. The commercial sector, in its prodigiously funded initiatives to make of e-commerce something more effective than broadcast, is not burdened by any agenda to improve its customers. In the falling away of legislation, its general operating principle has been to encourage masterbatory distraction, for the love of profit. Whether curators and artists reject this destructive cynicism in the name of humanism, Marxism, or even libertarianism, is of secondary concern to me; the mercenary revolution that has seized the Internet is a movement that should be seriously counteracted. Moreover, artists and museums can play an important role in sustaining alternative standards, ones that embrace a fuller potential of interactive, networked media than is motivated by commerce.

Passive consumerism reigns, whereas the capacity to contribute and conduct has become too rare. Many cultures, including earlier manifestations of American culture, have shown an aptitude for creative participation that would be the envy of networked art. In the masked dance rituals of the villagers of Cote d'Ivoire, for example, I have seen forms of spontaneous interaction that differ markedly from the object/spectator and performance/spectator dichotomies of Western culture. Therefore I am skeptical when some dismiss the possibility that meaningful interaction can be a commonplace in the networked spaces of the Internet. Likewise, I am unconvinced that navigational clicking from "here" to "there" represents the frontier of creative contribution by the spectator. On the contrary, the very language we use to analyze and describe network interactivity is imbued with the slanted rhetoric of profit extraction and content minimization. We are forever hearing of "browsers" -- a term that implies the act of searching to buy -- when in many cases such software frames experiences that concern neither searching nor buying. "Client" and "server" also are loaded terms that reflect dubious assumptions about the horizons of the 'net.