I take a certain (well, a considerable) pride in knowing about stuff that others don't [yet] grok, but that means I'm occasionally blindsided by stuff I should have encountered but somehow missed. Can't know it all, despite trying to live up to my patron saint Hugh of St-Victor's injunction to omnia disce. So I'd never heard of Dave Hickey until I read a piece of his in NHLA. Smitten by his prose, I ordered Air Guitar: Essays on Art and Democracy (1997) and soaked it up in a few days. The title? It refers to Hickey's comments on criticism:
...criticism is the weakest thing you can do in writing. It is the written equivalent of air guitar --flurries of silent, sympathetic gestures with nothing at their heart but the memory of the music(163)There's a lot of similarly fine writing in the 20-odd essays, and plenty of art-world and pop-culture stuff that I knew next to nothing about, and Robert Christgau's review is a good entrée into what-all is included. The essay that really got to me was the penultimate: "Frivolity and Unction" (originally in Art isses, Summer 1996, but available here as a pdf), which seems to be mostly a savaging of pretense and self-delusion in "the art world" ... "seems to be" I say, since he's mostly talking about that realm:
...I found myself wondering why the music and film communities could respond to bourgeois punditry with such equanimity, while the French Academy and the contemporary art world went certifiably ga-ga. I came up with the answer. Music and movie people are not in denial about the frivolity of their endeavor, while the contemporary art world, like the French Academy, feels called upon to maintain the aura of spectacular unction that signifies public virtue, in hopes of maintaining its public patronage... (202)"Seems to be" I say, because it struck me that he's NOT just talking about the art world, but about the [cultural] delusions constructed around multiple worlds (politics, business, the instantiation and manipulation of consumer demand, education...) in which we bamboozle ourselves about what we are doing and why. But is this realization anything more than the familiar Emperor's Clothes critique of the purblind and muttonish stupor of my fellow citizens, which I've been belaboring for far too long? My encounter with this essay got spookier when it occurred to me to try substituting 'education' for 'art' in this paragraph:
What if works of art were considered to be what they actually are --frivolous objects or entities with no intrinsic value that only acquire value through a complex process of socialization during which some are empowered by an ongoing sequence of private, mercantile, journalistic, and institutional investments... (204)
...the art world is no more about art than the sports world is about sport. The sports world conducts an ongoing referendum on the manner in which we should cooperate and compete. The art world conducts an ongoing referendum on how things should look and the way we should look at things --or it would, if art were regarded as sports are, as a wasteful, privileged endeavor through which very serious issues are sorted out. (204)
So, I have been thinking, if art is 'good' enough to be deserving of public patronage, just what does it do? I would suggest that since such work must be designed in compliance with extant legislation and regulatory protocols, it can only work on behalf of this legislation and those protocols. It can encourage us not just to obey the laws that we all fought so hard to pass, but to believe them, to internalize the regulatory norms of civil society into a 'cultural belief system.' Unfortunately, art that aspires to this goal is nothing more or less than tribal art, a steady-state hedge against change and a guarantee of oppression in the name of consensus, however benign. (208)And if everybody did awaken to what-all is really going on, or down, what then?
The Keynote is a risky gig. The audience thinks it knows all there is to know (after all, it's a gathering of the ubergeeks of whatever the conference is about), and each individual in the audience is prepared to judge the speaker as not getting it if that individual's own understanding isn't foregrounded by the speaker's remarks. But the speaker is an outsider to the specific geekdom, invited to offer a perspective that (ideally) will make the audience question and rethink something pretty basic about its individual and collective understanding. A tall order, and requiring of the Keynote Speaker a superhuman clarity of perspective and articulation. I'd argue that Bruce Sterling succeeds in this instance, and how he works the magic is worth study.
He's introduced as "the Prophet of Augmented Reality" and begins with 10 minutes or so of pretty general observations on the AR scene, replete with in-jokes and throwaway lines that establish his cred as an observer of the current state of AR as an industry, and he notes that part of the significant context includes the fact that the Titans of 20th century media are fading fast:
...Newsweek can't be sold, it's worth basically nothing, newspapers drying up all over the landscape, TV doesn't look like TV used to look, movies don't look like movies used to look...but around 12:00 his remarks take an analytical turn that suggests that he's really got something to say:
And then at 13:00 he kicks it into overdrive with an Aux Armes!, and THIS part is really worth your attention:
What is it that you are really doing? You could argue that what you're really doing is coding apps for early adopters of smartphones, and it's true that's where most of your money is, and where the press attention is, and it's kind of a good way to make your numbers this quarter, but that's not a very good mission statement for your very young industry.
I think it might be a good idea if you want to think of yourselves as the world's first pure-play experience designers ...and experience design as it currently stands is mostly futuristic hot air...
You might want to watch the whole thing:
WHOSE reality really needs to be augmented? Is it really cutting-edge geeks who are eager to have the most advanced hand-held gadgets? You are those people, so of course you think of those people, but are they really the people who need you the most? Whose realtime sensory experience of the world really NEEDS to be redesigned?
I would suggest blind people, people who already have sensory problems. I would suggest foreigners, people who are bewildered in a reality they don't understand, confused people, people who are mentally ill, handicapped in some way, people who can't read, people who can't speak, people who can't hear...
...think of yourselves not as coders, not as a service business to add a little bit of sparkle to companies that are bigger than you. I think you need to cut yourself your own space, I think you need to consider yourself the torch that lights our steps...
without vision, the people perish, and we really need vision now. We could really seriously do with a good old-fashioned revolutionary Internet boom...
This meeting of yours is a precious opportunity to shape the language of your young industry... It's your chance to bake a big pie before you start slicing it up and fighting over the crumbs.