The 'Atomisation' of Cultural Signage

or, More Dumb Semiotics in Contemporary Art

published in the National Association for the Visual Arts Quarterly, Sydney, September 2010

Scanning through the list of movies I have watched in the Aughties (2000-2009) I struggle to get a fix on what might constitute that decade’s cinema. I can formulate a shape of things for the 80s and the 90s (admittedly with hindsight), but with the Aughties I’m struggling because it seems too apparent and too classifiable. Reality has become just like Wikipedia wants me to see it.

Maybe attempting to read the last decade’s cinema – or any form of cultural media signage at the service of aesthetic, formal and/or performative engagement of that epoch – is obfuscated by they way that signage itself became ‘atomised’. This ‘atomisation’ is discernible not by postmodern postulation about historical regurgitation, but through the ways that any cliché, icon, stereotype, trope, trend, reference, parody, quotation has been presented in a misty haze of vague familiarity. Neither precision, clarity nor orientation qualify artistic statements across this period: anything was voiced with the meagre of means, and accepted tacitly by tokenistic register. Lazy journalists, rote marketers, grasping economists, blog hustlers, white-paper advocates, consultants of any calibre, online social networkers, breakfast radio DJs, contemporary art curators, supposedly offensive comedians, television hosts, radical graffiti situationists – all have contributed to this miasmal cloud. Truisms became gags; aphorisms became beliefs; figures became systems; politics became slogans; images became lessons; words became triggers.

‘Atomisation’ constitutes a phenomenal climatic recontextualistion of cultural signage as it has been presumed to function up to this point. It follows, then, that if cultural production – the simple making of stuff and its subsequent consumption through acknowledging its relevance or suitability – has become so saturated that its dispersion is now clouded as atmospherics. All the structuralist and architectonic metaphors for semiotics and signage hitherto employed are mirages of effectiveness. To insinuate that linguistic discourse is occurring in any public mediated statement would be like saying you are emotionally moved by the latest expensive humanist advertising campaign for a major insurance company. For the Aughties is the era of dumb semiotics: when speakers of all sorts communicated with signs and signification while presuming that their signage was devoid of prior usage, counter effect, duplicitous manipulation, or even outmoded relevance.

Within the dimensional parameters of atomisation, it is inevitable that contemporary art simultaneously suffers this crisis and exploits it. For if all signage and statement is now rendered in the finest and most minuscule of particles, there is scant stable ground for an artist to stake as their contextual platform for making a statement. Artists thus enact a largely embarrassing charade of believing they are somehow different from all other cultural producers (filmmakers, composers, performers, illustrators, etc.). while feeling they are heroically empowered to cut though the mist of signage to construct something meaningful.

Across those long aching Aughties, there has not been a contemporary Biennale in Australia that did not make grandiose claims about ‘the world’ (or worse ‘our world’). If the world were viewed through the contemporary artists of the Aughties (many of who were put on millennial pedestals like a pantheon of Jules Vernes), one would think that they alone invented cinema, advertising, spectacle, commerce, globalism, interactivity, sound, science, the earth, you and me. And all in a decade. Overcompensating for the politcal impotence of contemporary artmaking, catalogue texts infer a strangely Judea-Christian rhetoric that if they speak of good, then good will happen in the world.

By extension, I must be speaking of bad, thereby contributing to all the bad that is happening in the world. But better me bad-mouthing the self-centredness of contemporary art than the patently offensive, dismissive, patronising, mis-informed, faux-controversial, pseudo-cutting-edge, anti-intellectual, politically-posturing coverage of contemporary art on the ABC from the last two and half decades.

Media coverage of contemporary art – like earnest art production itself, and like the sincere yet insecure curatorial grappling with its presentation – cannot escape the atomisation of the times, because it contributes to the conditions which generate atomisation. And the more that the arts attempt to valiantly trounce the media, art history, the museum, institutionalization, or whatever subject of its subversive melodrama, the more they reinstate the conditions of atomisation through a charade of performing untenable feats. Which means that artists are about as powerful and important as celebrity chefs. Or, art is now simply stuff done by Banksy. Take your pick.

Philip (bad speak) Brophy – July 26th, Melbourne

Text © Philip Brophy. Image © your dumb parents.