With the emergence of Conceptual art in the 60s and 70s, artists, rather than having dematerialized or immaterialized their work, had instead shifted their palette from largely physical materials to largely virtual materials. The virtual as defined by Deleuze “is not opposed to “real” but opposed to “actual,” whereas “real” is opposed to “possible.” What is important is that in this sense the virtual is as real as the actual. In contrast, dematerialized art is often tacitly classified as beyond matter and it’s material constraints, not real enough to be bought or sold, essentialist and transcendent. But this is based on a false dualism that classified the virtual as unreal and thus discounted it’s very real properties, relationships and affects. Manuel De Landa writes:
The token material entity of current textual theory—just to back track a bit—the ‘60’s in France was the great period of virtualization. Everything became text. Kristeva and Derrida and so on were just talking about intertextuality. Even the weather doesn’t exist, it is what we make of it, what we interpret of it. Everything became virtual in a way. Baudrillard says that everything is just simulacra, just layers of neon signs on top of layers of television images on top of layers of film images and more and more virtual stuff. The computer games and simulations. We need an antidote to that. We need to acknowledge that we’ve built these layers of virtuality and that they are real, they are real virtual. They might not be actual but they are real still but that all of them are running on top of a material basis that ultimately informs the source of power and the basis of society.
But why adopt what seems at first glance like an inconsequential semantic shift? Why should we call the virtual element a material rather than immaterial? The answer lies in the enriched view of materiality that science has uncovered in the last 40 years, an enrichment that might be overlooked under the transcendental label of immateriality. Since the 1960’s Nonlinear dynamics, also known as complexity theory or chaos theory, a field of applied mathematics, has revolutionized disciplines as disparate as physics, biology, economics and philosophy. It’s most fundamental contribution (besides inspiring jurassic park) being the discovery of inherent structure to the seemingly random forms and events in life. Everything from the static on a telephone line to the formation of mountains to the fluctuations of stock markets display deep structural patterns and tendencies (attractors). It is these patterns that give rise to the myriad shapes and events of reality. No longer is material (actual or virtual) an inert and lifeless substance that forces act upon to create forms and patterns, but rather, materials have self-organization, form and pattern immanent to them.
This understanding brings the most conceptual or immaterial art back into the realm of material research. An intervention into the structures and attractors of reality, tinkering with cultural, political and economic systems/institutions and their material properties. In the 2009 essay “Painting besides itself” David Joselit refers to Martin Kippenbergers’s call for painting to explicitly present the network in which the artwork is embedded. “Kippenberger’s … associates …. such as Michael Krebber, Merlin Carpenter, and … Jutta Koether—have developed practices in which painting sutures a virtual world of images onto an actual network composed of human actors, allowing neither aspect to eclipse the other.” This network (similar to Bourriaud’s human relations) is a part of the metastructure surrounding and comprising any artwork. But this metastructure also extends into the matter/energy and associative/historical networks and flows of artwork and artist. In other words the actual and virtual material structures and flows of art. An explicit reflection of this network within the artwork therefore becomes an attempt at discerning the true environment surrounding the work. It is a problem stating strategy in the way an organism’s genetic material is emergently seeking to clearly ascertain the ‘problem’ of it’s environment. And like organisms in ecological environments, its deployment also becomes a part of it’s environment thus forming a Hofstadterrian reflecting feedback loop. An artwork which has always been a reflection adjusts it’s image to reflect it’s self reflection.
This understanding also brings to light how artworks increasingly reflect their preeminent manifestation in the space of public perception (hype-space). Hype-space is the distributed and mediated space of catalogs, websites, magazine articles and word of mouth. Artworks are experienced primarily through mediated channels and therefore in an attempt to ascertain “the problem” of it’s environment, artworks are visualizing this dispersion. But what one can also surmise from this is that the artworks originate in a virtual topological space before the actualization of galleries and hype-space. Artworks therefore are topological constructions that harness and interface with the metamaterial flows of our world. They consist of actual and virtual materials with myriad actual and virtual manifestations dispersed through actual and virtual channels.
The philosophical ramifications of this shift in perspective are far reaching. No longer is human civilization a sovereign anthropocentric endeavor, but rather it is the emergent property of the natural material world itself; thereby removing the separation between humans and nature, the synthetic and the natural. All of a sudden moral codification, reliant on an anthropic sovereignty, is invalidated at the metaphysical level making way for an immanent ethics. An ethics based on local causal affects rather than transcendent judgements of good or evil. Everything is self-signifying and no longer metaphor. The idea of extrinsic laws governing material behavior ceases and is instead replaced by emergence and immanent causality. Artists can uncluster social material assemblages into their component properties and reengineer them to develop new, destratifying results. No longer an appeal to theosophic metaphysicality but a realist metamateriality.