March 15th, 2007
The Political Economy of the Cyborg Artist in the Digital Age
 
We are all cyborgs. In the words of Andy Clark, “[w]hat makes us distinctively human is our capacity to continually restructure and rebuild our own mental circuitry, courtesy of an empowering web of culture, education, technology, and artifacts”(Clark 2003:10). This is an important point, but it is also important to remember that this restructuring is not always under our conscious control. We are bombarded with media messages constantly. It is impossible to pay attention to every message that is thrown at us. In fact, we have integrated the media itself into our sense of individual identity. Yes, our technology enables us to do things unimaginable to people only a few generations ago, but what is the origin of these technologically mediated facets of our cyborg selves? How much of our sense of identity is not truly our own?
According to Jacques Ellul, “Propaganda is the inevitable result of the various components of the technological society, and plays so central a role in the life of that society that no economic or political development can take place without the influence of its great power”(Ellul 1965:160). As the increasingly astute propaganda techniques of monolithic institutional entities make us vulnerable to influence, we also increasingly construct our identities on the agendas of these institutions. This is of particular importance due to the way that corporations (and the technologies they create) shape the boundaries of discourse both as disseminators of information and as distributors of tools for media production. The role of the cyborg artist has never been more difficult. The tension between the artist and the political economy of the mass media system proliferates throughout the entire production, post-production, and distribution systems of mediated art objects. In the text below I intend to problematize the role of political economy in the construction of a cyborg identity, specifically in regards to the role of the artist in the production of meaning and culture.
Cyborg?
I began this essay with the assertion that we are all cyborgs. To me this seems like a simple truism, but I believe it requires some further explanation to make the connection truly apparent and natural. Humans are tool-using creatures. We are creative in the broadest sense of the word. Creativity, the drive to recontextualize things into meaningful patterns, is quite possibly the defining characteristic of what it means to be human. The tools that we use to carry out this recontextualization are called technologies. As much as we can say that we shape our environment through the use of technology, our environment also shapes us. Nature vs. nurture is not a battle that can be won, but a constant compromise between our internally defined self and our externally defined reality. We can no more escape our genetic predispositions than we can escape an earthquake.
But if it were truly this easy, if it were as plain as a simple dichotomy, my argument would end here. Andy Clark, in his book Natural-Born Cyborgs describes it quite well:
“[T]he old puzzle, the mind-body problem, really involves a hidden third party. It is the mind-body-scaffolding problem. It is the problem of understanding how human thought and reason is born out of looping interactions between material brains, material bodies, and complex cultural and technological environments. We create these supportive environments, but they create us too. We exist, as the thinking things we are, only thanks to a baffling dance of brains, bodies, and cultural and technological scaffolding. Understanding this evolutionarily novel arrangement is crucial for our science, our morals, and our self-image both as persons and as a species”(Clark 2003:11).
We are all cyborgs. It is wired into the fabric of who we are as humans. As Walter Benjamin noted, “The audience’s identification with the actor is really an identification with the camera”(Benjamin 1936:55).  Our technologies are a part of us, just as they are useless without us.
Marshall McLuhan postulated that media is an extension of our senses (McLuhan 1964). Clark takes this one step further. He states that as our tools become increasingly transparent, they become a part of us. I think he is correct in this assertion. I cannot see without my glasses. Were I to get behind the wheel of a car without them I would undoubtedly be a menace to everyone on the road. But, as I am sure is common to most people with vision as bad as mine, I would never do that. I would never do it because I don’t do anything without my glasses. In fact, I do not typically even realize that I am wearing them. They are, for all intents and purposes, a part of me. I only notice them when they are gone. This is what Clark is talking about when he refers to “transparent tools”. To me, I can see just fine - that is, when I am wearing my glasses. “[T]he line between that which is easily and readily accessible and that which should be counted as part of the knowledge base of an active intelligent system is slim and unstable indeed”(Clark 2003:42). This marriage between the biological and technological is the definition of a cyborg. The relationship between our biological construction and our technologies is an increasingly important part of who we are as individuals and as a society. It is also important for our art.
The Artist
But what is so important about art? Isn’t art simply an expression of creativity? In fact, if art is an expression of creativity, and creativity is the defining characteristic of what it means to be human, then what is the difference between an artist and a human? The answer in this case lies in degrees, in the scalar perspective of the vantage point of the observer. Much in the way that the 1960s animated short film Cosmic Zoom (Burnett 2004:78) showed us reality from varying levels of scalar perspective as it zoomed from the level of atoms to the imagined grandeur of the universe, the definition of an artist lies in the vantage point from which you choose to ask the question. In a certain sense, we are all artists; we all create. But for the perspective of large-scale cultural phenomenon, not everyone is an artist. In some ways, it is the plasticity of the term itself that makes it so useful. For my purposes here, I will define an artist as someone who consciously recontextualizes his or her environment in order to create meaning.
The increased power of technology has had a particularly large impact on the artist. This has happened for many reasons. Foremost is the primacy of the fact that recontextualization requires tools. It is a romantic notion indeed that an actor uses her body to create her art and has no need for tools. In fact, the monologue she performs can only be formulated through the use of writing tools. Where once a simple pencil and paper produced a musical score, modern composers use computer keyboards and midi sequencers alongside musical keyboards in order to hear the timbre and tone of their works without the difficulty and expense of an orchestra. Long gone are the days of oral histories that existed only within the memories of countless generations. Today our minds have grown to encompass huge libraries of thoughts. This is made possible by our extension beyond the apparent boundaries of biology into the porous, expanding scope of technology. The photographer, musician, filmmaker, painter, and composer have all changed in the ever growing surge produced by exponentially taller waves of technological breakthroughs. The artist has attached these new limbs to her body and taken them out into the world to see what they can do. In the words of Wyndham Lewis (as quoted by Marshall McLuhan), “The artist is always engaged in writing a detailed history of the future because he is the only person aware of the nature of the present” (McLuhan 1964:70)
The new distribution systems created by technology allow the artist’s work to receive exposure never before thought possible. While technologies such as television and radio allowed artists to be seen and heard around the world, they also gave rise to a growing cult of personality that threatens the relevance of the meaning created by the modern artist. In the words of Marshall McLuhan,
“To reward and to make celebrities of artists can, also, be a way of ignoring their prophetic work, and preventing its timely use for survival. The artist is the man in any field, scientific or humanistic, who grasps the implications of his actions and of new knowledge in his own time. He is the man of integral awareness” (McLuhan 1964:71)
McLuhan offers this as a warning to society not to dismiss the work of artists. Artists serve an important and necessary function in the ability of a society to consciously and intelligently progress into the future.
The artist develops a scalar perspective that allows her to see beyond the day to day. Indeed, context and perspective are the hallmarks of art. Art is truly in the eye (or ear or touch or smell) of the observer.  We, as humans, make art as a collaborative effort between the artist and the viewer, a consensual suspension of practicality. The viewer of a painting sees the image of a lonely man playing a guitar and not the paint itself. The filmgoer sees an ancient castle in a bustling nineteenth century European city rather than a set with props and lighting and extras. We choose to enter the world of the artist, and in doing so we collaborate with her in creating a new reality. The perspective of the artist gives us a chance to step away from ourselves and soar into our favorite song, or to sink deep into our inner self to contemplate what we would do in a beloved character’s situation. The power of art allows us to reflect on where we have been and to imagine where we might go next. Art is the embodiment of imagination, and as such it is supremely important to the future of a living, growing culture.
The Political Economy of Media
Media is the distribution channel through which art is disseminated in modern society. “The mass media serve as a system for communicating messages and symbols to the general populace” (Herman and Chomsky 1988:280). Though the rise of the Internet does indeed provide the “average” citizen with the means to distribute his work worldwide, the reality is that large multinational corporations control the vast majority of media traffic in our society. In an increasingly media-saturated society, it is difficult to filter out the uninteresting, untrue, and just plain bad media from the worthwhile stuff. Mass media institutions do this for us. Sometimes this is a helpful service, but often the interests of the media companies themselves get in the way. Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky created a “propaganda model” that illustrates the filters that media content goes through on its way to the viewer:
“A propaganda model focuses on this inequality of wealth and power and its multi-level effects on mass media interests and choices. It traces the routes by which money and power are able to filter out the news fit to print, marginalize dissent, and allow the government and dominant private interests to get their messages across to the public. The essential ingredients of our propaganda model, or set of news “filters” fall under the following headings: (1) the size, concentrated ownership, owner wealth, and profit orientation of the dominant mass-media firms; (2) advertising as the primary income source of the mass media; (3) the reliance of the media on information provided by government, business, and “experts” funded and approved by these primary sources and agents of power; (4) “flak” as a means of disciplining the media; and (5) “anticommunism” as a national religion and control mechanism. These elements interact with and reinforce one another” (Herman and Chomsky 1988:280).
Though Herman and Chomsky were concerned with the dissemination of news, this model can easily be modified to be relevant to the dissemination of media art. The first, second, and fourth filters need no modification for be applicable. Additionally, mass media art, though it does not necessarily rely on information from approved sources, cannot dispute the information disseminated by “approved” sources (3). Simply substitute “antiterrorism” for “anticommunism”(5) and the model is complete.
Major media institutions serve as gatekeepers to filter out “non-professional” works (professional works being those that pass through the filter of the propaganda model). As one writer puts it, “With the modern growth of professional and commercial media, amateur cultural production [is] ghettoized. ... The advent of mass commercial media create[s] a spectacular arena of shared public culture and imagination that transcend[s] ... local knowledges”(Russell, Ito, Richmond, and Tuters 2006:1). This allows the major media corporations to allow unfettered amateur production insofar as it passes through the filter and does not cut into the profits of the established media companies. If an amateur work begins to generate profitability, it is quickly assimilated into the for-profit media machine. In this way, the established players in the media market are assured of getting their cut of any money to be made from amateur production. If there is no money to be made, the phenomenon is ended. This can be seen in the rise of many popular cultural phenomena such as South Park (which began as an amateur christmas video), YouTube, and Napster.
The Cyborg Artist and the Media Institution
This situation should not be seen as entirely negative. As shown in the three examples cited above, the political economy of the media can have mixed results for the cyborg artist. The creators of South Park have made a successful career out of their animated satires. They have been able to navigate the filters of the mass media system by not allowing themselves to be taken too seriously. Exceptions can be had as long as there is money to be made. The result of the YouTube phenomenon has yet to be seen. As of this writing, YouTube is being sued by Viacom for willful copyright infringement as it attempts to work out deals with major media players to legitimize its business model. The downfall of Napster is well known.
The problem with media institutions derives from the way in which cultural memes interact with issues of ownership and control. When pieces of culture such as phrases, images, and other forms of media become the property of corporations, as well as becoming cyborgean pieces of individual identity, a conflict arises between the self as an independent entity and the self as an amalgamation of corporate subsidiaries. This is serious stuff indeed! What are we if not the sum of our experiences? If our experiences are each owned by a different corporation, our sense of identity becomes a scattered collaboration between various immortal profit-seeking entities that simply have no conception of human individuality. The human element is reduced to a discrete digit in a computer program designed to make functioning consumers in the cultural marketplace. This is not malevolence. It is the product of human-made institutional entities. Simply put, they don’t know any better. Corporations were designed by people to allow us to accomplish more as a unit that we can as individuals. As much as the corporation is the cause of many of the problem I am raising here, I do not wish to demonize it unnecessarily. These institutions are created by humans, and as such they can be revised, destroyed, or reinvented by humans. It is important to keep in mind that we have an interdependent relationship between ourselves and our technologies. We both shape and are shaped by our environments and the technologies that exist within them.
The technologies that disseminate our culture have many faces. It is not a simple dichotomy. This is not a battle between good and evil, but instead is a battle of memes. There are many discrete concepts at work here. There is profitability, economies of scale, and entrenched technology, but there is also DIY, flying under the radar, and innovation. Perhaps now is a good time to look at a few examples.
The Legality of Collage
Negativland is a sound collage group that has been together since 1980. They specialize in creating works from the aural detritus of consumer culture. In the words of Negativland member Mark Hosler, “The way we work and the way we use the media was a totally natural response to just growing up in a media saturated world”(Sonic Outlaws 1995). The way that Negativland appropriates the media content that constantly swirls around us easily meets the definition of a cyborg artist. The media, as extensions of our selfhood, become us. As such, it is difficult to draw the line as to where we end and the media begins. As media-saturated artists, Negativland uses what it knows. According to the group, “Free appropriation is inevitable when a population bombarded with electronic media meets the hardware that encourages them to capture it”(Negativland’s Tenets of Free Appropriation). Critical dissection is sometimes the only way to maintain a sense of self under the constant mediation of modern consumer culture. “You take these things that are coming in on you and you turn the barrage back on itself in some way. You expose the intentions”(Sonic Outlaws 1995).
 In 1991 Negativland released an album titled U2. The album was made from pieces of the song “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” by U2 combined with outtakes of Casey Kasem swearing and ranting about U2. The resulting legal battle exemplifies the difficulty faced by the cyborg artist when confronted by the political economy of the mass media. The group created a collage from the recognizable media content that fills the airwaves in order to comment on the banality of consumer music consumption. This, some would argue, falls under the realm of “fair use”, a legal principle that allows an artist to appropriate a work for purposes of commentary, parody, or satire. Still, Negativland was sued by Island Records, The record label took the position that Negativland was intending to swindle the consumer into thinking that Negativland’s album was actually a new U2 record. This is an unwarranted assertion toward a band that never sold more than 15 or 16 thousand copies of any of its albums. Furthermore, Island Records never asked Negativland to change the artwork or presentation of the album. As a result of Island Records’ successful lawsuit, Negativland was dropped from their record label and held libel for $90,000 in legal fees, a sum that would destroy the financial standing of most small artists.
This case illustrates the way in which artistic creation is problematized in an age of cyborg consciousness. The media that permeates our lives becomes a living part of our sense of self. This is especially relevant to the role of the artist in society. In the words of Mark Hosler of Negativland,
“[A]rtists are always reacting to their environment right? You're always doing something that's reacting to the world you're in, so what are the tools or the technology you had a few hundred years ago to do that? Well, maybe you had a paintbrush, you had a piano, a lute. You could interpret things that way, and the way we see it now, and it sounds like perhaps you agree, is that now the technology is simply different and now it happens that instead of just making a painting of something I can take a photograph, a video, I can make a xerox, I can make a sample”(Hosler 1992).
New technologies become extensions of our consciousness. The cyborg nature of the human conditions sets the artist at odds with the political economy of the corporate mass media system. This difficulty has become readily apparent in my own work as well. In my video work I enjoy making creative and meaningful pieces from the detritus of our visual culture in much the way that Negativland uses sounds. Unfortunately, the private ownership of public culture makes it difficult to work with images of modernity. Instead, I am forced to use public domain footage. Of course, there is nothing wrong with using public domain footage. I have enjoyed using it for many years, and resources like archive.org make it easy for a young artist to find and appropriate the public domain. But the media available within the public domain is growing steadily more irrelevant with the passing of time. The problem here lies in the fact that new media content is no longer entering the public domain. Constant extensions of the terms of copyright have created a system whereby the original copyright term of 14 years has been extended to the current term of 70 years after the death of the author (or in the case of corporate authorship, which is increasingly the norm, the term of copyright is the lesser of 120 years from creation of the work or 95 years from first publication) (“Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act”). This effectively cuts off the artist from the media of his own culture; which, as a cyborgean extension of his self, creates an amputation. The cyborg artist is made increasingly irrelevant and impotent by the political economy of the mass media.
The Background of Life
Another case where the mediation of daily life has a profound impact on the media artist  is described by Lawrence Lessig in his book Free Culture: The Nature and Future of Creativity. Lessig describes the story of John Else(Lessig 2004).  John Else is a filmmaker who was working on a documentary about stage hands at the San Francisco Opera. At one point, Else shot some footage of the stage workers hanging out during a show. The footage showed the workers playing checkers. In one corner of the room sat a television set with The Simpsons playing on it. Else liked the footage. It showed the stage workers as a contrast to the art portrayed on the stage. “As Else judged it, this touch of cartoon helped capture the flavor of what was special about the scene” (Lessig 2004:web). Years later when Else completed his film he attempted to get clearance from Fox, the owner of The Simpsons, for the use this footage. He was told that it would cost him $10,000 to use four and half seconds of The Simpsons playing in the background on a small television. Eventually, after many attempts to reach a more reasonable agreement, Else decided to digitally remove the shot from the background of his footage.
This incident is an excellent example of the way that media ownership is problematized in the work of the cyborg artist. The media we consume becomes a part of our identity just as “Simpsons viewer” is one piece of the puzzle that makes up the identity of the stage hands portrayed in Else’s documentary. As Matthew Fuller puts it,
“An element, cluster, or concatenation of data, flecks of identity - a number, a sample, a document, racial categorization - are features that identify the bearer as belonging to particular scalar positions and relations. Such flecks are processed in ways that make them resolvable, contradictory, that make them bear - given certain forms of interpretation - certain values, depreciations or openings, and are made useable. The citizen has a place, a speed, a set of functions as a variable within a social, bodily, and technical algorithm”(Fuller 2005:148)).
Fuller applies the concept of flecks of identity to means of social surveillance and control. I would assert that this concept is especially relevant to media as a cyborg function in the formation of identity. Are you a Bud man or a Miller fan? Coke or Pepsi? McDonalds or Burger King? Product choices define our place within the cultural superstructure. They identify us both to ourselves and to others. It is the same with media choices. Do you know what a “Soup Nazi” is? Are you a Trekkie? Do you know what happened last week on [fill in the name of a currently popular television program]? These bits of mediated culture are more than just entertainment. They are important flecks of identity that identify us as members of various subcultures within the larger social whole. Taken individually, these flecks are fairly insignificant, but when working together they form our concepts of identity.
This seems like a fairly straight-forward proposition right? But what happens when these pieces of identity are owned by huge corporations? This is exactly what happened to the stage workers in Else’s documentary. One aspect, or fleck, of the identity of the stage workers (their viewership of The Simpsons) came into conflict with the political economy of a giant media company. Their activity was not their own, and as such, could not be shown to the world in Else’s film. It is fine for the workers to watch The Simpsons (and in doing so provide income to the television station in the form of advertising - the sale of the workers’ attention), but it is illegal for them to show themselves watching The Simpsons. Under this system of control, we do not own the legal rights to our own activities.
This becomes especially important to the cyborg artist - as exemplified by the difficulties faced by John Else in putting out his documentary. In order to show his film about the realities of the life of stage workers at the San Francisco Opera, he was forced to digitally falsify the space where the four and half seconds of images from The Simpsons appear. He had to create a falsehood in order to portray a reality. His choices were to either comply with Fox’s demands or risk a lengthy and expensive legal battle that he knew he could not afford. Whether or not this usage of the footage from The Simpsons falls under legal fair use guidelines was irrelevant because the legal costs and the investment of time involved in fighting Fox in court would far outweigh the difficulty and expense of digitally purging the shots from his footage. Apparently illusions are cheaper than reality.
Distribution Channels
As a cyborg, the modern artist can exist beyond the boundaries of the human skin bag. Television and radio have long provided the modern individual with access to sounds and images from far beyond the standard biological range of humans, but this communication has typically been a one-way street. The Internet finally allows the individual to talk back. The cyborg artist can now publish her work to a wide audience without the collaboration of a mass media corporation. This is a huge advantage to the artist, and contrasts sharply with the negative effects on artists of the political economy of media, as illustrated in the examples above. For the time being, Internet distribution is a boon to the cyborg artist. It remains to be seen if this advantage can be maintained.
As it stands now the cyborg artist has equal access to the pipes that carry information over the Internet. This means that a video I make available on my personal site has just as much chance at bandwidth as a Yahoo or Google video.  But if some of the corporate owners of the media pipelines have their way, a tiered system of media delivery may be implemented.  This would mean that those who pay higher costs would receive a higher percentage of the space in the pipe. Content from a “premium” service such as a Yahoo or Comcast video might take two minutes to download while a comparably sized video from my “non-premium” personal site might take two hours. The principle that the bandwidth allotment for all users should be the same is called network neutrality. According to an article in the Washington Post, “unfettered Internet access has come to be seen by Americans in general as not just a privilege or a product, but a right akin to free speech and free association” (Stern 2006:2). This issue has important implications for the cyborg artist.
As an increasingly integral part of our cyborg extensions of self, the Internet plays a huge role in shaping our identities. New terms such as “web surfing” and “googling” change the definition of what it means to be human. Never before has so much information been readily available at the touch of a few keystrokes. The digital revolution has changed us all. The Internet allows the digitally extended artist to be anywhere and everywhere all at once. Artists can collaborate across oceans and share their work with people halfway around the world. The reach of the modern cyborg artist is truly astounding. The Internet is a crowning achievement in global communications, and so far it has managed to largely escape the filters of limitation imposed on television and radio by the propaganda model. This piece of our extended cyborg sense of identity has not yet been entirely colonized by the corporate world. There is still enough virtual land to allow the cyborg artist to set up a thriving colony of her own. This is an important victory for the cyborg artist. It remains to be seen if it will be a lasting victory.
Conclusion
According to Paul Willemen, “the real cultural ‘producers’ are the ones who determine and provide the ‘templates’ for marketable cultural production, the rest of us, artists and intellectuals alike, merely ‘play’ (i.e. produce) within the virtual parameters specified for us by the cultural bureaucrat-entrepreneurs”(Willemen 2002:25). While I doubt things are truly as simple (or as bad) as that, I believe it is important to pay attention to the warning inherent in Willemen’s words. It is easy for the cyborg artist to slip into the blissful unawareness offered by the potential cyborgean mind-meld with the political economic forces of the corporate media system. It is still possible to work beyond the boundaries set by the current media system. Even though the major corporate media players do indeed “provide the ‘templates’ for marketable cultural production”, the cyborg artist has a means of self-distribution never before available to independent producers as well as a cultural environment that is at least willing to experiment in some ways beyond the standard template. There is hope. Admittedly, the role of ownership in allowing cyborg artists to make use of their cultural media environment in their works is extremely problematic. In all aspects of media production (production, post-production, and distribution) the specter of the political economic system looms large. But the fact remains that these are battles that must be fought in order to be won.
The often adversarial relationship between the cyborg artist and the political economy of the media will never be entirely resolved. In fact, were it to be resolved it would mean that the quality of art being produced within our culture has become woefully lacking in meaning and significance. The artist, after-all, must have something to interact with and against. But things could also be better. As the proliferation of tools for making media increases, it is the duty of the cyborg artists themselves to take a stand for freedom, independence, and integrity. Whether we like it or not, as humans we are inextricably interlinked with our technological environments. The choices we make now will have an irreversible affect on the future of our entire species.
Resources
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