Utopianism, Technology, and the avant-garde: the Artist Shaping the Social Condition

“It is we, artists, that will serve as your avant-garde; the power of the arts is indeed the most immediate and the fastest. We have weapons of all sorts: when we want to spread new ideas among people, we carve them in marble or paint them on canvas; we popularize them by means of poetry and music; by turns, we resort to the lyre or the flute, the ode or the song, history or the novel; the theatre stage is open to us, and it is mostly from there that our influence exerts itself electrically, victoriously. We address ourselves to the imagination and feelings of people: we are therefore supposed to achieve the most vivid and decisive kind of action; and if today we seem to play no role or at best a very secondary one, that has been the result of the arts’ lacking a common drive and a general idea, which are essential to their energy and success.” – Olinde Rorigues, 1825

Randall M. Packer is nominated as Secretary of the US Department of Art & Technology by President George W. Bush. November, 2001

Originally published by
LINK: A Critical Journal on the Arts in Baltimore and the World


by Randall Packer

It is we, artists, that will serve as your avant-garde; the power of the arts is indeed the most immediate and the fastest. We have weapons of all sorts: when we want to spread new ideas among people, we carve them in marble or paint them on canvas; we popularize them by means of poetry and music; by turns, we resort to the lyre or the flute, the ode or the song, history or the novel; the theatre stage is open to us, and it is mostly from there that our influence exerts itself electrically, victoriously. We address ourselves to the imagination and feelings of people: we are therefore supposed to achieve the most vivid and decisive kind of action; and if today we seem to play no role or at best a very secondary one, that has been the result of the arts’ lacking a common drive and a general idea, which are essential to their energy and success.

– (Olinde Rorigues, 1825)1

Cybernated art is very important, but art for cybernated life is more important, and the latter need not be cybernated.

– (Nam June Paik, 1968)2


No society has ever known enough about its actions to develop immunity to its new extensions or technologies. Today we have begun to sense that art may be able to provide such immunity… if this is true, how is it possible to present the matter to those who are in a position to do something about it?

(Marshall McLuhan, 1964)3

Imagine our world if it were in the interest of government, industry, and corporate conglomerates to embrace and promote the utopian aspirations of the avant-garde.
The insight of artists who have engaged media in their work, and who are deeply entrenched in issues that arise from an increasingly cybernated society–issues such as privacy, intellectual property, access, identity, and freedom of information-should be of vital interest to the policy makers and subsequently to the culture at large.

To this end, a panel4 was held in the heart of the policy-making establishment: Washington, D.C., at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, just blocks from the confines of the White House. The panel initiated a forum, albeit short-lived, for establishing a critical discussion between artists, critics, journalists and government officials to consider the possibility, however utopian, of an effective relationship and meaningful dialogue between the arts, science, industry, and policy makers, and what forms of cultural transformation might result if this exchange were to become an essential component of the social discourse.

This essay provides a historical context and analysis of the panel’s discussion leading to a bold new initiative proposed to George W. Bush, President of the United States.


The artist is a visionary about life. Only he can create disorder and still get away with it. Only he can use technology to its fullest capacity… the artists have to use technology because technology is becoming inseparable from our lives. (Billy Klüver)5

Historically, the term “avant-garde” carries the implication of the artist as social warrior, fighting and defending ideological and philosophical terrain. The artist’s exploration of inner meaning through aesthetic investigation has potency when externalized in the outer world through the expression of art, with the potential of transforming the social sphere. Ideologies are symbolic forms through which social action can take place, leading to proposals (sometimes in the form of manifestos) that call for change.

The artist, as a member of the visionary vanguard, has the capability of raising ideological issues with the intention of initiating action and transformation. In this sense, the artist is not isolated, but is rather a force that stimulates action through discursive means, through the experience of and dialectic emanating from the artwork.

The artistic critique of modernity began explosively with the Futurists at the dawn of the 20th century, through the ideological instrument of the manifesto6, linking artistic practice with political militancy and social dissent. According to Renato Poggioli, “The Futurist moment belongs to all the avant-gardes and not only to the one named for it. The Futurist manifestation represents, so to speak, a prophetic and utopian phase, the arena of agitation and preparation for the announced revolution, if the not the revolution itself.”7

The artist’s role as political revolutionary also extended to the artist’s role as social provocateur, particularly in the case of the Dadaists who followed shortly on the heels of the Futurists. As Hans Richter described, “Our provocations, demonstrations and defiances were only a means of arousing the bourgeoisie to rage… Dada was not an artistic movement in the accepted sense; it was a storm that broke over the world of art as the war did over the nations.”8

Throughout the 20th century, the avant-garde has embraced the structural rigor of engineering and machine industry as a way to introduce new forms into artmaking, and as a way of engaging with contemporary technological society. As a Constructivist, El Lissitzky conceived the Proun9 in 1919 as an abstract representation of multi-dimensional or 4-dimensional space, as a way of expressing utopian thought through the dynamics, speed, and complexity of contemporary society and science.

The Proun was the articulation of space and energy and embodied the objectivism of science, but also transcended pure technical reason through the artist’s vision. It became a force that had the potential of reshaping reality, first by inventing new interior spaces and then releasing them into the outer world, where they would transform the larger social consciousness.

In the same way, a motif in El Lissitsky’s radical children’s book Of Two Squares from 1920-22 (as incorporated into the author’s Telematic Manifesto) was a new design treatment in its shift from stasis to dynamism, becoming a metaphor for encouraging the “reader” to take action through the newly realized dynamic forces of graphics and texts.10 This reciprocal process foresaw the expanding role of the audience in participatory and interactive art.

During this same period, The Bauhaus School attempted to awaken social consciousness through the creation of functional industrial objects, as well as new abstract forms in painting, sculpture, printmaking, film, photography, and theater, that brought awareness to contemporary thought by incorporating the advancing new technologies. As László Moholy-Nagy expressed it, “The primary requirement is that those who have not yet reached the contemporary standard of mankind should be enabled to do so as soon as possible through our work.”11

Artists’ collectives such as the Ma Group from Hungary, who published a revolutionary treatise in the radical Dutch publication De Stijl12, had expressed the importance of the collective statement as agency for political change: “A future collective society is the only possible basis for the full development of our creative life.” 13

These early 20th century aspirations of the avant-garde set the stage for the century’s close, as the Internet-a mass medium with the potential of yielding new collective forms-would facilitate the artist’s need to extend aesthetic inquiry into the outer world where ideas become real action.

In response to this potential, Peter Weibel,14 a longtime exponent of political manifestations in his artistic, theoretical and curatorial work, was determined to further his activist position towards art, technology, and culture through the emerging medium of net.art. Weibel conceived and mounted the exhibition Net_Condition in the fall of 1999-on the threshold of the new millennium-which, he says, represented “an introduction to the political-economical ideas, social practices, and artistic applications of on-line communication in a Net society.”15

Weibel refers to the distributed mechanisms of the network as a vehicle for furthering collective action and artist-driven social transformation when he claims, “The socially revolutionary utopias of the historic avant-garde, movements of enlightenment, such as freedom of contract, equal opportunities, and intercultural emancipation are now to be implemented by technology.”

This utopian assertion mirrors the equally hopeful ideologies of such media theoreticians as Pierre Lévy and Roy Ascott, whose writings have promoted the collective, participatory nature of telematic art 16 as a new catalyst for the realization of socially and philosophically motivated aspirations. As Weibel concludes, “Net.art has become the forum in which many of the liberating hopes of the historic avant-garde are expressed in new terms.”

Net_Condition reinforced the notion of the artist as visionary and agent for social change, in the context of rapidly evolving media and telecommunications technologies. Weibel expressed the hope that here at last was a medium that would allow the promise of failed efforts of previous avant-garde to achieve their goal: the artist and his collectively formalized ideologies as an instrument for social change.


And the next thing you know by using this Web-based technology, and by using the incredible processing power and the incredible information gathering and organizing capabilities that the Web makes available to you. Suddenly now, you’re talking about tremendous political change, tremendous social change. Now, I don’t want to paint a utopian picture, but what I am telling is: This is happening and it wasn’t happening five years ago. (Don Druker)17

The network has, in fact, empowered the artist to expand his or her ideas into a broader set of cultural activities that include science, sociology, politics, and economics. This notion was well-documented in the Net_Condition text through reference to twenty-seven “conditions” that were impacted by Net artworks, in a way which, according to co-editor Tim Druckrey, “wasn’t just about an artistic activity, but it was about the dispersal of artistic activity across the spectrum.”18

The author’s Telematic Manifesto, included in Net_Condition and inspired by Weibel’s proclamations, articulated this yearning with contributions by artists, writers, curators, engineers, and theorists concerned with the impact of telematics on the changing social condition.19 This project was designed as a “collectively generated hypermediated Net document” articulating the multifarious ideologies of its participants, as culled from a list discussion conducted during the course of the exhibition.

Artists and Net-based arts-related activity has, in the spirit of Joseph Beuys’ notion of “social sculpture,” expanded the boundaries of the artwork via the distributed Net infrastructure, and into the socially driven sphere of chat rooms, listserves, bulletin boards, databases, and other forms of online communication, information retrieval and interaction. Napster20, (r)(tm)ark21, Hell.com22, Mongrel23, and Jodi 24 are all examples of the subversive penetration of art and artists into the social and political arena.

The network, in effect, has become a medium for constructing global and ideological mixologies, further disintegrating boundaries that differentiate the artwork from the broader cultural sphere. Paul Miller (a.k.a., DJ Spooky) says, “This fact is expressed and externalized through DJing. Making music, you’re never located in a vacuum, but you are part of an intertwinedness of influences.” Software experiments such as Mark Napier’s The Shredder, 25 in which, according to Miller, “You aim it at another browser and it remixes the page,” 26 are examples of how artists use the Web to extend the technique of collage borrowed from their ancestral avant-garde to freely re-contextualize cultural artifacts appropriated from the Internet.

While the digital divide represents a formidable barrier to artists attempting to gain access to the network, the medium has, conversely, also been an enabling, empowering vehicle for reaching and impacting a global audience, as is perhaps most dramatically illustrated by the “Jodi” phenomenon. Composed of young artists armed only with a PC, modem, and Internet connection, operating out of a small flat in Barcelona in the mid-1990’s, Jodi turned the art world upside down, bypassing galleries, museums, and other institutional obstacles to become enfants terribles of the international net.art scene, with their now infamous Jodi.org site. As expressed in my earlier writing, “Artists such as [Jodi] are searching for meaning, truth, poetics and magic in a medium that until only recently has risen from its military-industrial roots and transformed itself almost overnight into a mass phenomenon… With its global interactivity, collective tendencies, rapidly evolving technologies, and free exchange of ideas all demanding constant change and renewal, the medium is revolutionary by nature.”27

This has led to the creation of new types of open systems (as explored earlier in Happenings and other socially-active forms), in which artists have claimed territory in the digital realm as public space for the destruction of archaic hierarchies. This has led to the utopian notion of no ownership/no authorship projects such as 0100101110101101’s “Life Sharing,” 28 in which two artists openly and freely expose their computer and all of its files for public inspection, appropriation and reflection. According to Druckrey, “They have no secret e-mail accounts; they have no secret other computers. They just say, ‘We buy the open system.’ It’s a radical step to a sort of destabilized authorship.” 29 Along with the artist’s ability to reach an ever-expanding global audience comes the audience’s own ability to reciprocate and, in turn, affect the artwork, completing a feedback loop that is transformative on a scale unprecedented in any art-historical analysis. According to Drew Clarke, “what the Internet is starting to enable is where you have not just a passive receivership but an active collaboration between a creator and user, and the user becomes a creator.” 30

Thus, the artist’s aspiration of reaching and impacting a global audience is accentuated by the fact that the viewer (or “user” in this case) can reciprocate this action, engage creatively with the artist, artwork, and audience via the many-to-many collaborative and participatory nature of the network. Pierre Lévy has described this potent capability in some detail in his text Collective Intelligence: “Rather than distribute a message to recipients who are outside the process of creation and invited to give meaning to a work of art belatedly, the artist now attempts to construct an environment, a system of communication and production, a collective event that implies its recipients, transforms interpreters into actors, enables interpretation to enter the loop with collective action.”31


As a call for action, a letter was submitted to President George W. Bush announcing the creation of a new branch of the United States government: the U.S. Department of Art and Technology, established online at http://www.usdat.us

Date: Wed, 31 Oct 2001 8:15:41 -0400
To: President George W. Bush <president@whitehouse.gov>
From: Randall Packer <rpacker@zakros.com>
Subject: U.S. Department of Art and Technology
Cc: Vice President Dick Cheney <vice.president@whitehouse.gov>
RE: U.S. Department of Art and Technology (http://www.usdept-arttech.net)

Dear Mr. President,

Two years ago, upon moving to Washington, D.C., I had the grand idea that what our country needed most was a new government agency to oversee the integration of art and technology. As an artist working with new media, I was seeking a way to engage with the government and to stimulate collective action, and felt strongly that my expertise in this area qualified me to found the U.S. Department of Art and Technology and be appointed as its first Secretary. My plan was to build an agency that effectively uses the Net to give artists access to the political process so they can impact national policy, and reciprocally, to give the nation access to the artist’s vision as a means to cope with an increasingly technological society. For, as Marshall McLuhan has so profoundly stated, “The artist picks up the message of cultural and technological challenge decades before its transforming impact occurs. He, then, builds models or Noah’s arks for facing the change that is at hand.”

At this dramatic moment in our country’s history, there is a profound need for new initiatives that are critical to the cultural and spiritual well being of a nation under attack. This is precisely why I am writing to you, sir: to propose a new branch of the government be formed that will no doubt be successful in healing our wounded nation through the revitalization of utopian ideologies, ideologies that have long been fading since the heady days of Thomas Jefferson and the framers who created our Constitution. Mr. President, though it is well known that you are not a big supporter of the avant-garde, nor the expansion of government, you have proven to understand the need to act quickly and decisively to broaden the reach of the government, such as your recent action to found the Office of Homeland Security. You must now understand that today’s artists are probing the depths of issues that are of vital concern to the health of America, issues such as the impact of media on the national psyche in times of war, as well as the virtualization of human interaction resulting from the widespread assimilation of information technologies. People of all ages across the country and around the world are engaged with telematic devices to the point where they are forced to confront the dematerialization of the physical world, terrorists who control their media and their minds, a confused view of reality, and the disintegration of their perception of time and space. The condition of the human race is in dire trouble as we begin the 21st Century.

Mr. President, it is the artist and only the artist who can understand the depth of these dramatic changes. The U.S. Department of Art and Technology will safeguard our most precious resource–the visionary aspirations of avant-garde artists working with technology–and will, in turn, bring their message, essential to the well-being of our country, to all corners of this nation and around the world.

I know you will understand and acknowledge the urgency of my decision in these difficult times. In the spirit of our forefathers, the artistic visionaries who understand the complexities and dangers inherent in maintaining a free nation, a creative nation, a technological nation, must be given voice and play a key role in the ongoing process of shaping public policy in order to save our troubled world.

I would like to end this letter with a quote from the British artist Wyndham Lewis, who articulated the need for my request so well: “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.”
Mr. President, knowledge of this simple fact is now necessary for human survival in our cybernated and media-saturated society. I look forward to working with you as a new member of your cabinet in bringing the artist’s message to the people.

Yours sincerely,
Randall Packer, Artist

Date: Wed, 31 Oct 2001 8:16:02 -0400 (EST)
From: Autoresponder@WhiteHouse.GOV
Subject: Re: U.S. Department of Art and Technology
Sender: White House Mail Relay Autoresponder
To: rpacker@zakros.com
Comments: FCP version 1.7 jms/990907

Thank you for emailing President Bush. Your ideas and comments are very important to him.

Unfortunately, because of the large volume of email received, the President cannot personally respond to each message. However, the White House staff considers and reports citizen ideas and concerns.

Again, thank you for your email. Your interest in the work of President Bush and his administration is appreciated.

The White House Office of E-Correspondence

1. Olinde Rodriques, “L’artiste, le savant et l’industriel: Dialogue” (1825), quoted in Matei Calinescu, Five Faces of Modernity; Modernism, Avant-Garde, Decadence, Kitsch, Postmodernism, Durham: Duke University Press, 1987, 103.
2. Nam June Paik, “Cybernated Art,” 1966.
3. Marshall McLuhan,Understanding Media, Cambridge: MIT Press, 1964, 64.
4 . The panel, held on March 2 at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, included: Randall Packer, panel moderator and media artist; Drew Clark, journalist; Timothy Druckrey, media theorist and historian; Don Druker, Program Officer of the Technology Opportunities Program of the United States Department of Commerce; Paul Miller (a.k.a., DJ Spooky), writer, artist, and musician.
5. Billy Klüver, “The Great Northeastern Power Failure,” (1966) Multimedia From Wagner to Virtual Reality, Randall Packer and Ken Jordan, eds., New York: W.W. Norton 2001,. 38.
6. F.T. Marinetti, “Futurist Manifesto” Le Figaro (1909).
7. Marjorie Perloff, The Futurist Movement, University of Chicago Press, 1986, xvii.
8. Hans Richter, Dada – Art and Anti-art, Thames and Hudson 1964,. 9.
9. The Proun is an acronym for the Russian words, “Proekt utverzhdeniia novogo” (Project for the Affirmation of the New).
10. In the Telematic Manifesto, a design from The Two Squares was used as a flow chart leading the viewer from context to action (in the form of the documented list discussion) and back to context (conceptual keywords).
11. László Moholy-Nagy, “On the Problem of New Content and new Form,” in Krisztina Passuth, Moholy-Nagy, Thames and Hudson, 1985, 286-287.
12. De Stijl 5/8 (August 1922).
13. Victor Margolin, The Struggle for Utopia: Rodchenko, Lissitzky, Moholy Nagy, translation by Victor Margolin, University of Chicago Press (1997) pg. 61.
14. Austrian media artist, curator, and theorist, who joined ZKM (Center for Art and Media) in 1999 as its Chairman.
15. Net_Condition, curated by Peter Weibel, exhibition of over 100 projects at the ZKM (Center for Art and Media), 9.23.1999 – 2.27.2000, is located on-line at www.zkm.de/net.
16. The term “telematic” has been appropriated by the electronic arts community to describe artwork, which employs modern communications medium as part of its structure, or process.
17. “The Artist’s Message Shaping Public Policy,” panel discussion at the Corcoran Gallery of Art (March 2, 2001).
18. Ibid.
19. Randall Packer, Telematic Manifesto, (1999) is located on-line at www.zakros.com/manifesto.
20. Napster, located on-line at www.napster.com.
21. (r)(tm)ark, located on-line at www.rtmark.com.
22. Hell.com, located on-line at www.hell.com.
23. Mongrel, located on-line at www.mongrelx.org.
24. Joan Heemskerk and Dirk Paesmans, Jodi, located on-line at www.jodi.org.
25. Mark Napier, The Shredder, located on-line at www.potatoland.org/shredder.
26. “The Artist’s Message Shaping Public Policy” Op.cit.
27. Randall Packer, “Net Art as Theater of the Senses A HyperTour of Jodi and Grammatron,” located on-line at www.archimuse.com/mw98/beyondinterface/packer_senses.html.
28. Renato Pasopiani and Tania Copechi, “Life Sharing,” located on-line at www.0100101110101101.org.
29. “The Artist’s Message Shaping Public Policy” Op.cit.
30. Ibid.
31. Pierre Lévy, Collective Intelligence, (Plenum Trade 1997), 123.

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