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Funny Money -- Critical Challenges and Bruce Nauman at the Tate*

One of the curious effects of National Lottery funding for major
arts projects is that it precipitates crises which have been kept in
balance (occasionally for decades) by the absence of cash. Such is the
case with the Tate, the national collection of British, modern and
contemporary art. For twenty years, its only purchase of electronic or
any other media art was Susan Hiller's *Belshazzar's Feast*. Despite
recent purchases of work by Viola, Acconci and Nauman and the upsurge
of Brit Pack interest in video, successive curators have been able to
argue that there was neither money nor space for such material.

Now the Tate is preparing to open a Lottery-funded branch in a
reconditioned 30s powerstation at Bankside. There is room and cash to
spare. Art that isn't painting or sculpture; Video and, if
they ever accept its existence, digital media art will go to Bankside
with Beuys and Penone. People are worried that the result will be a
funfair at Bankside, remote from the historical collections and divided
arbitrarily by medium.

Looking at the current _borrowed_ collection of Nauman's work, this
seems particularly galling: here, after all, is someone freely moving
between video, casting, neon and mixed media, including sound. which
gives rise to the following query: Does the medium matter?

if information theory is correct, the channel is the least important
part of communication. All it represents is bauds and bandwidth. But if
MacLuhan is right, the channel is the major feature. After all, the
only thing holding digital media together is their encoding as binary
signals. But how would you conform Warren Weaver *those basic
relationships which hold in general, no matter what the actual case may
be* with MacLuhan, *the medium is the message*, or indeed with
Greenberg's still central definition of modernism as medium-
specificity?

The Nauman show seems to give us a neo-Chomskyan answer: there are
certain deep structures of artistic thought that emerge in whatever
medium offers itself. But Chomsky is adamant that the grammar module in
the brain is utterly distinct from the visual, semantic, spatial and
whatever else modules. Nauman offers the (return to?) convergence
originated in for example; the music-dance-poetry-drama of the ancient
Greeks.

What has to change in the new multimedia then would be marked by a
collapse of organicism. If Chomsky and cognitive science are right and
the brain's parallelism is composed of mutually exclusive modules
operating on discrete functions like vision, orientation and reasoning.
So each of the channels available, the different media, in attempting to
differentiate themselves, became mutually redundant, but in doing so
throw themselves into a rapid evolution (because no one channel is now
essential for the survival of a message).

This might explain why multimedia is to date so uninteresting. It
imitates cinema, mainstream classical Hollywood cinema, in telling the
audience everything three times (in dialogue, vision and music):
massively obvious, massively redundant. It does not converge but
repeats.

What seems peculiar about the Bankside's kind of art is that it
is about more than the medium in which it is made. It is
intensely ambiguous, as Nauman's is, not least where there is a mismatch
between what is being said and the means of saying it.

Like the neon *Slap in the Face*, whose light staccato flicks through the
slapstick motions of the slap between two cartoony protagonists. It is both
violent and a parody of violence; caught in the pinks and blues of the
commercial medium par excellence; hung in the UK's most prestigious
gallery.

If MacLuhan is right, then the medium is the gallery. If
Shannon is right, we have an inventively noisy message which produces
aesthetic effect by confounding codes. Either way, the work functions by
laying coherence and incoherence in each others way. That is exactly
what the planned Tate strategy will avoid. Will the net be the same?

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