The Cybernetics of Conceptual Art
Dia: Beacon is an oasis for Minimalism and Conceptual art lovers alike. Lawrence Weiner’s Declaration of Intent (1969) captivates viewers at the museum’s café and ticket foyer with its declarative prose:
1. The artist may construct the work
2. The work may be fabricated
3. The work need not be built
The origin of this piece dates to the groundbreaking exhibition Software: Information Technology: Its New Meaning for Art, curated by Jack Burnham at the Jewish Museum in 1970. Conceptual art is more than an artists’ right to dematerialize, but a subversive investigation into language. The science of language, Cypernetics, explains Weiner’s system of art.
By Danielle Kalamaras
In the Software exhibition Lawrence Weiner exhibited the piece now on view at Dia:Beacon, then titled An Accumulation of Information Taken from Here to There (1969). The piece stated,
1. The artist may construct the piece
2. The piece may be fabricated
3. The piece need not be built
Each being equal and consistent with the intent of the artist
the decision as to condition rests with the receiver upon the
occasion of receivership
This statement was first published in the catalogue “January 5-31 1969” curated by Seth Siegelaub in New York and has since accompanied all publication of Weiner’s work.
Weiner’s piece does not use ‘medium’ in the material sense, but instead uses language. Language is the preliminary mode of meaning in society, existing as a specific social construction. Language is divided into a series of psychological entities called signs; a sign is composed of parts, a sound image and a concept, or a signifier and a signified. The sign has characteristics determined by its context in the line of speech and also by the internal relationships of the signified to the signifier.
Curator Jack Burnham explained in the exhibition catalogue, “Signs used in language have to be arbitrary or unfixed in meaning.” Weiner exploits the arbitrary relationship between the signifier and the signified in his piece. The written text of the piece (signifier) need not produce anything at all (signified).
In Software's catalogue, Burnham stated, “the goal of Software is to focus our sensibilities on the fastest growing area in this culture: information processing systems and their devices.” Software countered previous exhibitions dramatizing relationships between the machine, technology, and artistic production, notably Pontus Hulten’s exhibition Machine at the End of the Mechanical Age at the Museum of Modern Art in 1968. Hulten’s show inferred the shift from machine technology and the mechanical age to a new era, that exemplified in Software as the era of information technology.
Norbert Wiener, considered the originator of Cypernetics, stated in his book The Human Use of Human Beings: Cybernetics and Society:
“The machine, like the living organism, is, as I have said, a device which locally and temporarily seems to resist the general tendency for the increase of entropy. By its ability to make decisions it can produce around it a local zone of organization in a world whose general tendency is to run down.”
The ability to process information is a byproduct of an organism’s ability to react to their surroundings, a way to decrease entropy, and the ability to co-exist within a system composed of nature (disarray) and culture (human system of order). For humans there is a need to decode and organize nature—the need to create order out of disorder. This mirrors the need for a universal system of language, a given set of rules that dictate the production of meaning through information processing. The decrease of entropy and the plight for progress is the ‘natural’ order of intelligent humans. Although in constant dialogue with nature, the incessant need to organize nature through technology exists as a false consciousness.
In the Software catalogue, Burnham restated Norbert Wiener’s definition of cybernetics as “the set of problems centered about communication, control, and statistical mechanics, whether in a machine or a living tissue.” Burnham stated that Conceptual art not only involves problems of organization, but that these problems are contingent and “controlled by communication structures both within themselves and with their environments.”
Language, the major form of communication within a given system, is the dominant mechanism of control within society. The ability to possess information as well as dictate its transmission between organisms creates hierarchical boundaries dictating the formation of meaning, the product of transferred information. Conceptual art questions boundaries not only within the structure of art, but also within the hierarchical structure of language because it exists as an open system subject to continual transformation.
Excited about Science-based Cybernetic art? The Jewish Museum has two Conceptual and Minimalism inspired exhibitions opening soon: Other Primary Structures in March 2014 and Mel Bochner - Strong Language in May 2014.