Required Reading: The Immediated Now: Network Culture and the Poetics of Reality by Kazys Varnelis

Throughout the 1990s, digital computing and network technologies were largely employed in office work, their cultural implications confined to niche realms for enthusiasts. If that decade’s new media art formed a vital artistic subculture, it was mainly isolated and self-referential, in part due to the artists’ fascination with hacking the medium, in part due to its position as the last in a long line of Greenbergian interrogations of the medium, and in part due to its marginalization by established art institutions. Artists like Vuk Cosic, Jodi, Alexei Shulgin, and Heath Bunting replayed early twentieth century avant-garde strategies while emulating the graphic and programming demos of 1980s hacker culture, before computers left the realm of user groups and became broadly useful in society.[1]

Today, in contrast, digital technology is an unmistakable presence in everyday life and is increasingly inextricable from mainstream social needs and conventions. Network culture is a broad sociocultural shift much like postmodernity, not limited to technological developments or to “new media.”[2] Precisely because maturing digital and networking technologies are inseparable from contemporary culture — even more than the spectacle of the television was from postmodernity — they must be read within a larger context. All art, today, is to one extent or another, networked art.

This investigation can’t be limited to online venues, but it also can’t be limited to “art.” Postmodernism called high and low into question (think of Warhol as the quintessential early postmodern artist, or later Barbara Kruger, Cindy Sherman, Jeff Koons, and Richard Prince) by bringing in products of the culture industry into art, but network culture levels that distinction utterly. Art under network culture dismisses the populist projection of the audience’s desires into art for the incorporation of the audience’s desires into art and the blurring of boundaries between media and public.[3] With the spread of knowledge work, attitude and a quick wit for fashion have become more important than knowledge of historical depth so, as Alan Liu suggests, whether a cultural artifact is cool or not matters more than its status in high and low (indeed, unless the object is first cool, styling it as high ensures that it will be seen as kitsch today).[4] Still, as a chapter in a book on networked art instead of, say, on networked cultural production, our focus here is on art. Nevertheless, we will also roam afield to a broader survey of cultural products, high and low, online and not (if it is possible to say that there is anything not online today in some form). Thus, this essay examines not only what is on but also what is on television, on YouTube, or in the gallery.

Specifically, this chapter looks at how networked cultural production draws on reality, from reality television to blogs to MySpace to YouTube to the art gallery. Reality art leaves behind formal structure and deeper meaning for a heightened sense of immediacy. This immediacy, however, is not so much authentic and present as mediated and dispersed. To speak of this work as “reality” media is not to imply it is not coded. On the contrary, the fascination with the real in “reality” media, be it reality TV, amateur-generated content, or professional “art” is constructed around specific tactics: self-exposure, information visualization, the documentarian turn, remix, and participation. Nor should we expect these transactions to be one way for if the distinction between high and low is tenuous at best, then it stands to reason that the discourse formerly known as art will also influence what was formerly considered non-art. After laying out a context for immediated reality, this essay will examine these five registers in a preliminary survey of the field. In looking at such art practices, it’s important to understand both how they fit into broader aspects of network culture and how they work within the discipline.