We know too much these days


In the Art Intervention Seminar organised by Stephen Willats at Vilma Gold gallery, the substance of my talk was how, because of recent changes in the economy and ideology in Britain and America, there has been a subsequent subversion, through corporate and state interests, of the of areas of art practice that I had previously marked out as critical. The result of which is that these same areas of criticality have become complicit with the needs, at a particular phase in its development, of global capitalism and neo-liberal politics. When presenting my bleak and pessimistic assessment of the situation in the seminar, I was looking for a new critical position to emerge, one that could then be developed as a more optimistic text for the proposed ‘future of art’ issue of Control magazine.

I started my talk with this quote from The Man without Qualities by Robert Musil.

"We no longer have any inner voices. We know too much these days; reason tyrannises our lives."[1]

For reasons that will later become clear I then gave the briefest of outlines of the larger part of my practice, as follows:

I have been working with the transferral of knowledge since the late 1980s in two distinct ways. Both used an art context, and were primarily for my own educational benefit. One of these was through direct human interaction, the other, using generalised information, in various forms, to carry, by proxy, so to speak, my idiolect [my particular voice] that was itself, hopefully, the conveyer of knowledge. Personal human interaction was partially determined by a desire to exclude what I identified as a hegemonic and parasitical institution, i.e. the art world, and because of this, I took the step of totally removing this part of my practice from, and working outside of, the established domains of art (it is possible but it comes at a price). This meant that there was not only no audience as such, but because the work was not documented for any formal artistic purpose, there was also no feedback, even after the work was complete. Working in this way gave me certain freedoms from restrictions and other pressures and provided me with an invaluable space that enabled me to nurture and grow my understanding, at a pace, and in a form, that was right for me. It was possible and quite easy to maintain this ‘parallel’ mode of production due to my relative anonymity in art world circles and my disinterest in certain commonplace art practices. I was also aware that if I was critically successful, this position, when filtered out, might help strengthen the knowledge that institutional finance or validation for this form of practice is not always necessary.

The second method of transferring knowledge - quantitively the greater part of my output and one that took many forms - including: text, video, and even an animatronic talking head - was always constructed carefully with an audience in mind, and was specific at least as far as the conveyed knowledge was concerned. And as previously mentioned, it was usually the positioning of the voice that carried meaning and not always the information on display. Both of these tactics became vital, and at the same time risky, when in the late 1990s I came to understand better the growing importance and use of information and knowledge in our society, which, as it turned out, was determined by a shift in global production from an industrial to a knowledge economy. And how, through the agencies of capitalism and the state, every aspect of society, including art practice, (especially art practice, as I saw it) was being detourned into becoming part of this new order of things: the informational[2] society.

When I first started using knowledge and information, I had no idea of an infomationalised society, as it was, I saw information operating as a means of control and profit. I also knew that it was somehow linked to the new service industries and at that time my work was geared to mapping and tracking, again, primarily for my own understanding. My focus was directed towards what I perceived to be the growing social and economic importance of the leisure industry, how it was spreading and encompassing culture, education and sport, in order that all these sectors of work, play, and learning, traditionally perceived to be separate, could be merged and become part of one totalising system. Working with information for this period did at least help me to realise that my installations were not only, “simply providing entertainment for people[3] as somebody once said to me, but were implementing and reinforcing a reliance on the production and consumption of information in our daily lives.

Like everyone I was inadvertently becoming informationalised. I remember feeling the need for more information, more knowledge in order to understand these changes. This enormous shift from our collective industrial past was transforming not only work and social practices, but how an individual sees the world, others, and ultimately how they understand their self. As Hardt and Negri[4] put it, at the point where industry is replaced by information in economic terms it’s not so much about de-industrialising the human condition as “informationalising” it. This shift, at least in terms of labour and manufacture, has been taking place since the early 1970s as growth in western economies was increasingly linked to the service industries and information technology I would like to propose that conceptually, as a sort of meta-narrative, it can be traced back to the Macy Conferences on cybernetics 1943 to 1954.

“These annual conferences were sponsored by the Josiah Macy Foundation, and attended by dozens of distinguished scientists, researchers, technologists, etc. They came together to, and I quote from their own literature; “Formulate the central concepts that, in their high expectations, would coalesce into a theory of communication and control applying equally to animals, humans, and machines.” One of the outcomes of which was that henceforth “humans were to be seen as information-processing entities who are essentially similar to intelligent machines.” [5] Furthermore during the first Macy conferences [on Feedback Mechanisms and Circular Causal Systems in Biology and the Social Sciences, March 8-9 1946] Jon Van Neumann and Norbert Wiener “revealed that the important entity in the man-machine equation was information, not energy: how much information could flow through a system and how quickly it could move.”[6]

In my opinion this paradigm was understood as a sort of prime constituent, which slowly filtered into the consciousness of those in positions of power, opening up new ways to shape and control our sense of collective reality. This has led, whether, reflexively, haphazardly, or by design, to the social, economic and political situation that we find the world in today - where information flows are its very life-blood.

Where does the artist fit into all this?

The first institutional or ‘official’ manifestation of art in the information age was the Cybernetic Serendipity exhibition, August 2 to October 20 1968, subtitled: The computer and the arts, and held at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London. While this exhibition presented, by-and-large, a visual approach to technology (excepting Nam June Paik’s interactive televisions) it did at least attempt to introduce the debate to a wider public. This was followed by ‘Software’, Information technology: its new meaning for art at the Jewish Museum, New York in 1970, with work by, amongst others Vito Acconci, John Baldessari, Hans Haacke, Allan Kaprow, Joseph Kosuth, Lawrence Weiner, and Les Levine, sponsored by American Motors Corporation. Software did include more interactive exhibits and information, which wasn’t solely dependent on a visual aesthetic. The artist and writer Theodor H. Nelson also seemed to display a clearer understanding of the bigger picture in his catalogue essay, “The crafting of media” when he talked of “The strange revolution of our information environment”, in which he identified information as an environment rather than just a new aesthetic.

Broadly speaking, much art [mine included] since then has been either unaware of the paradigm shift in Western economies or has been inadvertently assisting or, at best embracing, these changes. Critically, in my opinion as the pace of this cultural, social, political and economic transformation has intensified in the past decade, so has the importance of the contribution of the artist to the new economic paradigm. Not just in this or that piece of work, or even in the type or form of practice, but in the very act of being an artist! It now seems paradoxical that the conceptual art revolution of the last century that had provided me with a critical platform for the struggle against hegemony, - with dematerialisation a most elegant and effective fighting resource - was itself now central to the neo liberal/global capitalist vision of the future.

"The information revolution is well under way... It is not a revolution in technology, machinery, techniques, software, or speed. It is a revolution in concepts..."
P. Drucker,1998[7]. [my italics]

Take a look at the form of employment now know as - Immaterial labour[8] that is: labour that produces an immaterial good, such as a service, a cultural product, knowledge or communication. Look at the workers in this new vision of labour; who are no longer required to be educated to a certain level and then trained, in one skill or profession, to work at fixed - mental and physical - locations, who now need to have continual, lifelong education, be flexible and above all creative. The contemporary artist fits into this picture being the archetypal worker model - nomadic, flexible, and, critically here, un-unionised. She will work for very low, or no payment, is classless, has an interest in all forms of culture, produces and consumes vast amounts of knowledge, and so on, on this basis the contemporary artist is a good role model for the new worker or ‘Citizen’ in new speak.

With so many artists in the late 20th century pioneering models of working with, and connecting diverse communities to one another, the prison building seemed to gather pace. You know the sort of thing: artists working in scientific, medical and educational institutions, or with workers in a broom factory, the type of projects involving connecting ambulance drivers to finance directors, and so on. These practices underpinned the notion of creativity as an everyday occurrence, while restructuring existing social patterns by eradicating ideas of separate and closed communities. It also helped to facilitate a more ‘networked society’, a key ingredient to the information flows of the new economy.

It just so happens that for the last decade my art has been a combination of those things that are central to the immaterial worker; knowledge, information, affect, communication, and ideas. And it now occurs to me that by not being fully aware of where all this information and cultural exchange was leading, I have been unwittingly promoting the orthodoxy of the new capitalist system, and making a rod for my own back; the captors always get the prisoners to build their own jails!

The crushing irony for me is that, if this is the case, my work as an artist has been successful - because as I have been doing it primarily for my own benefit - and the knowledge that is of interest to me is the understanding of my self and the world around me, this could be the first stage, I now know what I’m doing, I’m working for the man. I’m helping to build the next phase of the society of control, which is possibly the last phase until genetic biological control takes over, but that’s another story.

Actually this is not a new situation. In AD 97 Tacitus, writing in The Agricola[9], about how the Roman Empire managed to ‘civilise’ the ancient Britons, (who we now know were not as uncivilised as previously thought) said: “The following winter was spent on schemes of the most salutary kind. To induce a people, hitherto scattered, uncivilised and therefore prone to fight, to grow pleasurably inured to peace and ease..... And so the Britons were gradually led on to the amenities that make vice agreeable - arcades, baths and sumptuous banquets. They spoke of such novelties as ‘civilization’, when really they were only a feature of enslavement.”


So what’s going on here? Is the artist being utilised by global capitalism as a model for the ideal worker. It is worse; not only is the artist a model for the immaterial worker (for immaterial worker read ‘Citizen’, the immaterial worker being a whole new configuration of being), he/she is also an activist, counsellor, and sponsor, for the new economic, social and political system we will be confined by.

Not buying that? Then check this out; in 1999, Chris Smith issued a challenge to the arts world to “change the culture of culture and increase participation in the arts in the UK, from half to two-thirds of the population, over the next ten years.”[10] Two thirds of the population! Anybody who took any notice of this statement back then, would have dismissed it as being, ‘touchy feely’ policy, or conversely, would have thought that having two thirds of the population dabbling in the arts a wonderful thing.

Only twenty years before that, linked to partially inherited notions of democracy and equality, the area of art practice that I thought wasn’t right for me was the hegemonic nature of the art establishment, the way that that hegemony excluded many who it was thought could have benefited from access to it. A situation that at least for the past one hundred years working class people understood to be the deal. The administrative function of art has always been one of exclusion, elitism, a class issue as early as 1884, when William Morris in his paper Art and Socialism [11] argued that, “The greater part of the people have no share in Art – which as things now are must be kept in the hands of a few rich or well-to-do people.” Although, since then, many have thought this exclusivity worth challenging, notwithstanding varying degrees of minor concessions, it remained the same throughout the 20th century. But now it seems, everything has changed and Morris’s rich and ‘well-to-do’ (they go under a different name now) no longer have a monopoly on fine art, contemporary art, or even culture. Does this mean that particular struggle is over, and the fight for equal distribution of cultural capital and wealth has been won? No, the situation has actually got worse. For the artist that is, because now it is not just the fruits of their labour that are in the hands of those rich and well-to-do, - the critical basis from which they work is still determined by it’s relationship to capital - but more importantly the concept of art is now part of corporate and political thinking. There are no artists at the steering wheel. Artists are no longer making the meta-decisions about art, either its role, function or purpose, or the position of an artist either politically or socially. 

It has probably always been the case that art is continually in one form of crisis or another - mirroring the business cycles and logic of late capitalism. David Butler[12] recently pointed out that the growing involvement of central government in culture and the visual arts is centred around their ‘social inclusion’ policy. And he points to this taking place in recent debates about the use of social practice in art: “is there any public benefit - does it help build communities? Does it change peoples lives? Is it compensating for failures in other areas?” Leaving aside the use of artists and neo-artists (these unwitting proselyte’s) as model employees, low or unpaid social workers, and preachers of the new religion, the whole debate about aesthetic and moral efficacy in governmental strategy is largely irrelevant unless it is seen in the context of the changing economy.

Here we can return to William Morris’s comments and look at the current government’s green paper on the future of art, as laid out in: Culture And Creativity: The Next Ten Years13]. The very fact that the arts has a government department, at all, and that this is run by a Labour government, would have been achievement enough to the socialists in the 1880s, but this is not a Labour government, it’s something called a New Labour government. Despite this, things look to go even better for the enslaved because in the foreword Thony Blair states: “Above all, at their best, the arts and creativity set us free”. So he for one believes in the persistent conviction of the ameliorative effect of art. It’s worth pointing out that ‘freedom’ is a key concept in deindustrialising the worker/consumer, err, ‘Citizen’. Yet he goes on to say, this time a little more darkly, a little more ambiguously “Creative talent will be crucial to our individual and national economic success in the economy of the future.” This (unexplained) theme of the economy is picked up in the introduction by the then minister Chris Smith, and continues with thoroughness throughout the paper. Here are some examples: “‘creative thought’ …lies increasingly at the centre of successful economic life in an advanced knowledge-based economy. In the years ahead, people’s creativity will be central to the country’s economic success - successful societies in the 21st century will be those that nurture a spirit of creativity.” While a full picture of (their) economy is never made, as an option, the link between concepts, creativity and economy is made, from which a picture of its totalising and invidious nature can be drawn. “People with the imagination to come up with good new ideas are necessary in every area of our economy.” And from the chapter on Education, (Education, Education,) 2.4, it is clear just how ‘joined up’ the thinking is across different departments for the implementation of the programme to alter hearts-and-minds: “Facilitate… creative skills in information and communication technology in order to make sense of the enormous quantities of data that the ‘information rich’ society provides”. For Facilitate read re-train, for make sense read believe in, depend on, and consume. Education, education for life, is also at the heart of this transformation. This is why GCE’s and A levels passes are multiplying (being dumbed down) it’s why universities are proliferating, and intake is growing apace. This fact alone, I can’t help thinking, would have had socialists in the 1880s rejoicing in the streets, added to which, art has been taken from the hands of the ruling classes, and put in the hands of, err, the ruling classes.

One hundred years after William Morris, the legacy of the socialist discourse still seems to dominate certain cultural thinking. What is different is that because those concepts are no longer linked to socialist principles, they are now hollow, and subverted by the precepts of knowledge capitalism. It’s worth quoting William Morris again, this time from, News From Nowhere[14], “Men fight and lose the battle, and the thing they fought for comes about in spite of their defeat, and that it turns out not to be what they meant, and other men have to fight for what they meant under another name.”


In my opening statement I outlined those areas of practice that might still be defined as critical, which have become, as I see it, complicit with the needs of neo-liberal capitalist democracies. I would like to add in conclusion that there seems to be a certain depressing inevitability about this evolutionary phase, but all is not lost and as Chris Hables Grey[15] pointed out in his prognosis of our cybernetic future, we could have participatory evolution or we can have evolution that just happens to us, like a train wreck.

My question to you is how can we be critical within this new orthodoxy. Its omnipotent and totalising nature is such that all previous forms of criticality now only tend to support the system. I would argue that mapping and reporting is no longer enough, and I’ve shown how the current trend of working outside the conventional gallery system is itself part of the new social infrastructure and the political and economic imperatives of the networked society. While fractured or diverse practice is ideally suited to knowledge brokering, dis-affirmative practices can be a ticklish card to play, because irony now stands side by side with previously held notions of equality and democracy in the new marketplace.

For me to now occupy a position of critical efficacy as an artist, I first have to de-link from all 20th century artistic thought, the values of which are only pertinent to an historic and now largely redundant industrial narrative. Therefore I am, believe it or not, optimistic about the future of art, in fact I think neo-liberal capitalist forces have done it an immense service, because we are now on the verge of another real revolution in art, but first we must take back authority from those who would invert its use. Paraphrasing John Cage; art must, again, become a criminal activity.


Johnny Spencer 2003

No Copyright

Thanks to Anthony Davis suggestions & alterations to the text, and Jacqueline Cooke for her tireless assistance and invaluable help.



[1] Robert Musil, The Man Without Qualities: 1930-1942:  Minerva 1995

[2] Manuel Castells, The Rise Of The Network Society, Blackwell 1996

[3] David Troostwick, Artist.

[4] Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire, ch. 3.4. Harvard: Harvard University Press, 2000

[5] N. Katherine Hales, How We Became Post Human, ch. 1: University of Chicago Press, 1999

[6] ibid.

[7]Peter F. Drucker is a writer, teacher, and consultant specializing in strategy and policy for businesses and social sector organizations. He has consulted with many of the world's largest corporations as well as with nonprofit organizations, small and entrepreneurial companies, and with agencies of the U.S. government. He has also worked with free-world governments such as those of Canada, Japan, and Mexico.

[8] Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, op. cit., ch. 3.4

[9] Tacitus, On Britain and Germany,Trans. H. Mattingly. Penguin. 1948

[10] London Arts: Document

[11] William Morris, Art and socialism. <http://www.marxists.org/archive/morris/works/1884/as/index.htm>

[12] David Butler, Life Change, [a-n] Febuary 2003

[13] Culture And Creativity: The Next Ten Years. Green paper. London: DCMS, 2001.

[14] William Morris: News from nowhere, London Routledge & K. Paul, 1970

[15] Equinox: The cyborg cometh, Written & directed by Gary Johnstone. Channel 4 1994