The Web as an Instrument of Power and a Realm of Freedom

A Report from Ljubljana, Slovenia

The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 underscored the completely transient nature of territories; ever since then, walls and tanks standing riveted in place no longer represent limitations to movement, nor do they symbolize unassailable fortresses of power. In addition, the events of November 89 - a date that can be read as the symbolic inversion of May 68 - occurred in the same year that saw the introduction of the fascinating technology of virtual reality. This particular development was soon followed by greater accessibility to the global web of communications (primarily the internet) and the emergence of a new sensibility which introduced techno as a new lifestyle and a new sociability in the form of raves and manifestations in the form of parades.

The romantic era of virtual reality and network communications is already irretrievably in the past. The anarchistic, romantic, liberating, and critical potential associated with early cybercultural articulations, which boldly compared the emergence of virtual reality to the epoch-making breakthrough of Gutenberg's movable type, is now fairly exhausted and has largely been surpassed. Nowadays, virtual reality is a quite mundane technology, used as an attraction in theme parks, in scientific applications, and for military purposes. At the beginning of the 90s, the web, with its communications paths, edges, and nodes, actually promised the possibility of alternative links and experiences, in opposition to the monopoly of the traditional media, especially network television or large national television stations, Hollywood movies, and the Disneyfied MTV and CNN. Today, however, the development of the web is already fatefully defined by political, transpolitical, military, police, and media interests, and, above all, by the economic dominance of national and transnational institutions. Cyberspace is less and less a portent of messianic escape; it has become a colonised and "McDonald's-ised" field for enforcing the technototalitarianism, web fascism, machismo, and tribalism of new, distinctively yuppified elites. In this respect, the Americanisation of all web tools and standards is readily apparent. It would seem that companies such as Microsoft can already be classified among the ranks of global institutions, including McDonald's, Disney, Hollywood, MTV, and CNN, whose social influence and reach is enormous.

Until very recently, the web and virtual reality were associated with justifications, fascinations, and eulogies based on theories which, while offering apologies for web and virtual metaphysics, uncritically tied themselves to the leading figures of European philosophy, using them as an excuse for a cybercultural technoplatonism founded on the principle of digital justice. The web and virtual reality, hypostasized over the evil of hard, analogue reality, are currently fields where a harsh and radical critique is being constituted. This critique targets the web, which it characterises as an apparatus of power, and the virtual class and its processes of dominance in cyberspace. With the passing of the era of web evangelists and high priests, it seems that critical thinkers have come to the fore to cast a critical light upon the new technologies of dominance that have subtly permeated the new media and shaped the "traffic" on them. I am referring here to a series of analyses, ranging from Data Trash: the Theory of the Virtual Class by Arthur Kroker and Michael A. Weinstein to contributions on the demystification of the "California Ideology" (an article by Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron).

This text was written in Slovenia, a place that (at least, conditionally) belongs to the "web" of the so-called former Yugoslavia; where a virtual class is already operating and where a growing number of people are working in the virtual economy. Here, though, another class occupies the predominant position, namely, the class of nationalistic and ethnocommunist political elites who have enlisted notions of national culture in their projects of ruthless authority and in their campaigns to disseminate their rhetoric and influence. Slovenia is no California and does not have its own Wired - the yuppified bourgeoisie has come to terms with this state of affairs and deals with it by serving up national literalism and old-cultural ethnos. It is thus extremely significant that the yuppified communists have betrayed the interests of the left and, having dropped Marxism, base their self-promotion on the institution of ethnocultural identity. It almost goes without saying that the states of the former Yugoslavia are also regimes with great leaders who end up as mere caricatures of dictators such as Ceausescu and Tito.

It would be feigning ignorance to claim that in such milieus - the new states of ethno-fundamentalism associated with the restoration of old (even feudal) institutions and with a flourishing mafia - critiques of the web and the mechanisms of dominance advanced by the so-called virtual class are useful and productive. In Slovenia, these views are seen as remote concerns even though they may yet have fatal consequences in the future. At present, the situation in Slovenia differs from that in the West. In places like Slovenia, globalism and transnationalism may be perceived in some milieus as refreshing and productive forces, as they provide opportunities for integrating marginal experiences and articulations within the structures of dominance deployed by the yuppified old elites as well as opportunities for integrating new elites within the mafia. For the populations of Serbia and Slovenia, the "escape to the web," which in the developed countries of Europe and in the USA (and its satellites, the technologically developed states of the Pacific Rim) is an imperative now firmly entrenched in the mainstream or merely a conformist stylistic exercise, may actually still provide opportunities for participation in alternative social and cultural sites.

The very act of surfing from Bojan Stokelj's website, "Programmer in Belgrade" (the project that inspired me to write this article), to the home page of Belgrade's Politika (that is, the texts of an extremely regime-bound Yugoslav newspaper, printed in the Cyrillic alphabet) is illustrative. On the web, the paper is written is Latin characters. In virtual space it is read as a worthless American daily. Yet it is readable - it's not unbearable - since the digitised Serbian language functions much more neutrally on the web than in print. The web version of Politika is also worthless, but in cyberspace its summaries read, at best, as farce, reminiscent of the party propaganda materials of Kim Il Sung's Korea or Mao's China. On the web they come across as unique souvenirs, while in reality they function as lies.

The "Programmer in Belgrade" website <WWW.LJUDMILA.ORG>, designed by Aleksandra Memon, is at heart an art project, a global tool of multi-layered communications. It is about the website as a new artistic medium, as typical an art form from the era of cybernetic communications as CD-ROMs and computer-supported installations. Art in this era is actually would-be art, as refers to classes of works that are no longer works in the sense of being completed and authoritative in accordance with artistic tradition. They are only instant, current articulations, as a rule aesthetically coded and classified in artistic archives. It is about works as aesthetic situations, events, websites, and processes on which exchange value is conferred by their classification within the institution of art, where prestige and value are still necessarily correlated. The history of art possesses a greater aura of romance and glamour than does the history of science, technology, and media. Accordingly, to be an artist still affords an excellent alibi in keeping with the traditions of European culture.

An artistically designed website is a typical form of would-be art, for its very radical questioning of the artistic (that is, would-be artworks situated in an area which lies at the intersection of science, technology, new media, and art) proves that, at the moment, art has a raison d'ĂȘtre only if it explicitly questions and subverts its own procedures, if it escapes, like a satellite overhead, beyond the boundaries of the artistic system to the position of anti-art. It seems that would-be art is the only authentic form of art today which demonstrates the complex ontology of process-time situations, placed in the "social position of art." Here we should recall Heidegger's thoughts in The Principle of Reason, which imaginatively anticipate the agony of a work of art as a finished structure leaning on material support:

Strictly speaking, we may indeed be barely able, as we will see, to speak of objects any more. If we pay attention, we see we already move in a world where there are no more objects. [...] That in such an age art becomes objectless testifies to its historical appropriateness, and this above all when nonrepresentational [gegendstandlose] art conceives of its own productions as no longer being able to be works, rather as being something for which the suitable word is lacking.

A work of art as a place of questioning and complete uncertainty is also post-aesthetic in Walter Benjamin's sense - far-reaching points of departure for a theory of an allegoric work of art and its extreme relativisation of the functionality of art which was prescribed by the aesthetics of German idealism and the culture of the European bourgeoisie of the 19th century. In his essay "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," Benjamin wrote:

In the same way today, by the absolute emphasis on its exhibition value the work of art becomes a creation with entirely new functions, among which the one we are conscious of, the artistic function, later may be recognised as incidental.

When a work of art loses its material, subjective authority, it loses the very identity that can be protected by the police and through the judicial process, at least to some extent. It hardly seems likely that an intervention by an another artist on an art website would give rise to a trial hostile to freedom of action as the one that was recently initiated in the Netherlands against the artist Alexander Brenner. Works of art as would-be art, such as websites, are more amenable to conduct consistent with direct democracy than those associated with the dominance of gallery and museum capitalism.

The website as a field for new artistic creations is a challenge for artists to develop a specific form of "webness in the artistic sense" which differs from the codes of traditional works of art. The post-aesthetics of special effects associated with the paradigm of the web and cyberspace is characteristic of websites in general: non-linearity, hypertextuality, evolutionism, contingency, interactive approaches, unpredictability of the environment, complex behaviour, artificial life, total immersion, application of the principle of play, development of multiple personalities, telematic feeling, identification of visitors to websites with avatars, and so on. It is also important for post-aesthetics that emphasis is moving away from the beautiful (and its attributes) to the real, the authentic, and the demystified. It is no longer a question of fascination, but of debunking. Since notions of the real have been entirely relativised in modern science and turned into a farce in the mass media (which function as factories for manufactured events and for interpretations that strictly adhere to a determined interest), art on the web may stand a chance of not ignoring issues of the real and the false.

What can we say about the "Programmer in Belgrade" web project? In accordance with the nature of the web, it may be viewed as a work in progress. Its layout reproduces the structure of the TV news programme of Yugoslav RTV Serbia, a prominent regime TV station. Its various sections - politics, tourism, art, and the weather forecast for the following day - simulate the general structure and main content of TV news. The layout and content of the site are rounded out with photographs, taken by the artist (Bojan Stokelj) himself, of participants at demonstrations and with potent messages divided into graffiti, alternative (and, therefore, real) information, aphorisms, and commentaries. What makes it especially powerful are its actualistic effects, its references to politics (particularly the kind of politics that can still be made sense of through humour), graffiti, and art. The texts are vulgar and often written in jargon. Clearly, their intention is not to please (nowadays, attractions in shopping malls and theme parks are the more likely settings for displays of aesthetic hedonism), but to draw attention to another, more faithful account of the truth. Accordingly, Stokelj has chosen the aesthetics of the ugly rather than the aesthetics of the beautiful. Consequently, the site ranks prominently among Stokelj's projects in which he has offered swift reactions to the events that have marked the social reality of the past, such as his projects on the machine workers' strike in Ljubljana and the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina <WWW.LJUDMILA.ORG>.

From a technical standpoint, "Programmer in Belgrade" is not set up in a sophisticated, software-oriented manner, which would demand broader knowledge from the user/surfer or offer a more complex entry into the site. That is a shortcoming; upgrading the site into, say, an episodic website with the possibility of participation by web surfers through e-mail or their avatars would certainly enrich the project. Nevertheless, the site's simplicity does, in a sense, help to bring out its purely functional purpose: it rebuffs no one, requires no special software, and the "avatar in the form of President Slobodan Milosevic" is quite sufficient; after all, this dictator has in fact already been virtualised. As with an avatar in cyberspace, he is currently manipulated by his masters, those with a global interest in ensuring the situation in Serbia and the former Yugoslavia (and Iraq, Libya, Bolivia, etc.) remain as it is. Stokelj's project is, above all, relevant for its semantics; his photographs (shot during the student and opposition demonstrations in Belgrade) are supplemented with an interesting and provocative text which implies tactile qualities at the level of perception. The TV news programme at RTV Serbia is produced in such a manner as to "hit home." The input of and emphasis on the textual part confirm the thesis that cyberspace is primarily a field of texts and documents, that web content is markedly more textual than pictorial or numerical.

The section of the site that contains links to other current information sites (the independent B52 radio station, the University of Belgrade, the newspaper Politika) is also important. Artistic intentions with regard to politics can become relevant, current and, above all, momentous only by being played out not in museums but in the street. Needless to say, the street belongs to the new media and therefore to the web. We are dealing with a situation in which the political is encountered in the production, reproduction, and distribution of art. Yet estrangement from traditional art has compelled people to flee to alternative forms of art, which exist in a tension-filled relationship with politics, the traditional media, and the institutions of elite art itself. Although such a position is in many ways romantic and linked to the tradition of May 1968, it nevertheless works on the web; it makes it possible to say NO to politics, integrated with the fossilised and fundamentalistic forms of the ethnos. In a word: Eth-NO.

Works Cited

Benjamin, W. "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" in John G. Hanhardt (ed), Video Culture, A Critical Investigation. New York: Visual Studies Workshop Press, 1986, p. 34.

Heidegger, M. The Principle of Reason. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1996, p. 33, 34.

Janez Strehovec is a researcher and assistant professor in Ljubljana, Slovenia and the author of four books written in Slovene on theories of modern/postmodern culture. His most recent book, Demonically Esthetic, was published in 1995. The editors would like to thank Joe Masrour for his excellent work in editing this article for publication.