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The work of art in the age of codes and regulations

May 22, 2020

For Rafael Domenech’s exhibition at SculptureCenter


The planetary project of a unified metrics of life is almost complete. The movement of goods in standardized units traded in stock markets and shipped in containers across the world flows more or less seamlessly. The market regimes of maximizing profit disrupt vernacular forms of exchange, dimensions of products, routes of transport, and any other obstacle to the streamlined travel of commodities. All aspects of life, from the navigation of cities to finding love, are algorithmically propagated and transported via 5G networks. Everyone is surveilled, traced, and followed as long as they carry their mobile devices, and lost, suspended, without them. Insurance companies financialize the future by issuing catastrophe bonds that investors leverage against other assets.

These procedures are governed and administered via universalized codes and regulations, a semantic architecture that is devised and imposed by legally binding contracts and treaties. This linguistic infrastructure guarantees the protocols of sameness, universalizing metrics of relatability that define the dimensions of planetary daily life. Governmental and financial institutions are the editorial staff of the semantics of globalization that maintains, monitors, and regulates these parameters, metrics, and dimensions (within which life happens).

The work of art exists and functions within institutions that are plugged into the same infrastructure. Given these conditions, the notion of the authenticity of the work of art, which has already been questioned on account of its reproducibility and monetary value, is replaced by the specificity of the work. A contemporary artwork, a genre of art that operates within the institutional context, performs and practices its presumed autonomy through its specificity. Since the advent of post-studio practices, this specificity responds to a broader network of operations and connections within which the art institution functions. In other words, the integration of the artwork in the institutional context (historical, architectural, semantic, procedural, or otherwise) finds expression in contemporary art. The work of art, once freed from its “parasitic subservience to ritual,” is now conditioned by the rituals of institutional codes and regulations defined by the free market and the semantics of globality. Art’s response and interaction with such conditions marks the horizon of contemporary art.

The specificity of the work emerges from its engagement with the various institutional metrics. These include not only the physical architecture, the neighborhood, the historical conditions, and the exhibitory protocols, but also the legal parameters that are decided by governing organizations––compliance with the ADA Act, insurance and liability policies, fire codes, security requirements. These ubiquitous metrics are not restricted to art institutions; they constitute the regulatory apparatus of all aspect of everyday life in offices, factories, live/work spaces, cafes and restaurants, airports,  subway stations, and so on. These are the spaces where city dwellers, to quote Benjamin, “relinquish their humanity in the face of the apparatus.” The work of contemporary art, to repurpose his analysis of film, asserts this humanity against the apparatus.

The work starts as a file generated on one of several platforms, whether Sketchup or Adobe. What is the status of the file? Is it the artwork or is it what the set is to a film? Benjamin notes that in film the work of art is produced only by means of montage. The components of the montage (script, set, acting, makeup, wardrobe, soundtrack, and so forth) are not the work of art in itself. Similarly, the file is not the work; nor is the email, the spreadsheet, the concept draft, or the press release. It is rather the installation and the production on site that creates the work of art. This procedure is not unique to contemporary art, as architecture is also realized from multiple supportive components that eventually congeal into a building.

The work of contemporary art is specific, temporary, and adaptable. Its specificity is discussed above. Made for display, the work is assembled and produced in situ, yet with the closing of the exhibition the work in its totality, or in large part, is disassembled, relegated to storage, or consigned to the recycle bin. The work is essentially temporary, since it will not exist post-exhibition as a whole, or at all. Therefore, the question of what is a work of contemporary art is rephrased as when is it a work of contemporary art. This also responds to how a work is considered at a future date when certain parameters integral to its creation are no longer in place. Furthermore, given obsolescence, the technological equipment intrinsic to the work doubles as an archive of material culture. The neon tubes, projectors, 8-track, magnetic tape, cathode-ray tubes, no longer commercially produced and rarely operational, contribute to the work’s temporary status as contemporary art. Yet they also show how the work overcomes the apparatus by ingesting and preserving it.

The contemporary artwork, built from a file and made with supplies off global hardware-store shelves, can appear in different sites either simultaneously or at different times. However, does the work remain the same when it is adjusted to each site, potentially given new measurements and materials? The work is adaptable and subject to change and modification. This additional temporality of the contemporary art work further distinguishes it from the eternal, universal artwork as we know it. Unlike a painting, for instance, which when it’s done is done, the contemporary work of art, in the age of codes and regulations, might either be dismantled forever or adjust itself to a fluctuating set of conditions.

Benjamin compares the painter to a magician and the filmmaker to a surgeon. The former maintains and works from a “natural distance,” from reality, while the latter “penetrates into its tissues.” The contemporary artist is like the surgeon, but unlike the filmmaker; instead of showing the workers’ class potentialities by providing an image of a communal possibility, the artists use the metrics and semantics of planetary unification toward other ends. The museumgoer responds to the everyday metrics psychologically, as these are compatible with the standards that regulate ordinary life. Yet the work can upend those standards––infect, infiltrate, de-administer, deregulate, un-prescribe them. It can further democratize the tools and strategies that it develops so that its constituents could, potentially, carry them into daily life. This takes the form of programs that transfer knowledge through tactical distribution of the work’s position vis-à-vis the infrastructure by engaging and creating its constituents. The constituents are a public formed and engaged through the infrastructural and semantic rather than the relational and immediate, or, in other words, through the abstract. Risking redundancy, the work reroutes the metrics of standardization, not only those represented by big-box hardware store impositions and architectural limitations, but also those of the legal, financial, and procedural infrastructure that administer the panoramic excavation of life.

If with photography images have been untied from specific locations, with standardization most contemporary living environments can be replicated in multiple places. The generic architecture of Shanghai, Long Island City, Vancouver, or Dubai follows this logic of homogeneity. The sameness of the image is translated into similarity in all aspects of urban and, increasingly, rural life (whatever is left of it). These generic conditions include the contemporary art space with its ubiquitous prescribed parameters, conventions, and protocols. The contemporary urban environment that implements the planetary metrics of capital becomes increasingly hostile to flâneries, the unstructured exploration of a city. Getting lost or going unseen is no longer an option. The contemporary work of art that uses these metrics to create other forms of navigation of the semantics of the standardized everyday fleetingly disrupts the regulatory forces. In the age of total algorithmic distraction that hollows all instantaneous human desires instantly in service of data exchange bonds, art articulates a different form of distraction, prompting “new tasks of apperception.” Benjamin identifies this “reception in distraction” in film with its potential of mass mobilization. In contemporary art as defined above, this reception takes place through the dislocating of the habitual metrics toward unfamiliar ends.

Benjamin notes how fascism organizes the masses by preserving property relations, while granting people expression instead of rights. Contemporary algorithmic hyper-expressionism similarly maintains existing relations, as does the work of art that articulates itself by following distractory protocols that are streamlined through regulatory platforms of anti-social media and corporate news. But the work of art that considers the infrastructure of planetary semantics finds articulation in abstraction as its mode of distractive reception and an analytical generator of new vocabularies and images. This is the politicization of aesthetics. It does not mean making political art, far from it. Rather, it insists on aesthetics as the sphere of operation that rejects the creation of beauty somewhere at the expense of ugliness in another.


* Suggested by Rafael Domenech in direct reference to Walter Benjamin, the title of this essay captures the main concerns and suggestions of the work. The essay is an attempt to elaborate on some of these concerns in light of Benjamin’s formulations. All quotations by Benjamin are from his The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility, and Other Writings on Media, ed. Michael W. Jennings, Brigid Doherty, and Thomas Y. Levin (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2008).

** The last sentence of the essay paraphrases Yuriko Saito’s formulation in his “Aesthetics of the Everyday,” ed. Edward N. Zalta, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy




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