The cool obscure: new media art and William Gibson

12 Nov

So I’m reading two things in a desultory way at the moment. The first is William Gibson’s Spook Country. The second is Geert Lovink’s discussion of the new media arts (or lack of it) in a book called Zero Comments: Blogging and Critical Internet Culture. Both are coincidentally about similar concerns: new media art, and what Lovink calls the ‘cool obscure’.

Lovink’s beef is that there isn’t really a new media arts sector, to speak of. After all the excitement about virtual reality years back, and the sometimes-publicity generated by an artist like Stelarc, with his robotic prostheses and techno-utopian manifestoes –


– there isn’t really a flourishing scene involving artists on the outer reaches of new technologies. So Lovink says anyway: I am hardly the expert, myself. In Spook Country, Gibson imagines that this is otherwise. He describes a thriving network of new media artists who leave digital images in real space, visible to anyone with the right hardware (a special mask with wifi connections). One of his artgeeks recreates traumatic scenes in the precise locations where they took place. River Phoenix is depicted moments after his death, for example, lying face-to-pavement outside the Viper Room. How much this reflects current artistic dreams or praxis; and how much it simply expresses a desire that what Lovink calls the ‘stagnant “new media arts”‘ might be otherwise; I do not know.

Where Lovink and Gibson really part company is in their attitude to the ‘cool obscure’. As an assoc. prof. of media & cultural studies, Lovink is coming from a field where elitism is disowned, motivated by anxieties about the elitist nature of academic life. New media art will always be a marginalised phenomenon if its practitioners see obscurity as cool, he says – if they adopt the avant garde stance that anything popular lacks artistic value. High end, expensive new media art-installations are not going to allow artists to influence the development of technologies/ideas relevant outside their field. And that’s what artists should be seeking, right?

On the other hand, Gibson’s last two novels make a fetish of cool obscurity. In both Spook Country and Pattern Recognition, his Hubertus Bigend character is convinced that ‘secrets are the very root of cool’. He launches viral ad campaigns in which cool is marketed in sneaky and highly lucrative ways. And he spends vast sums in pursuit of secrets in pursuit of cool.

One of the most odious aspects of Pattern Recognition (the novel before Spook Country) is the fact that its heroine is pathologically averse to brand-names, and yet brand name-dropping punctuates the action in the most hypocritical of ways. Cayce Pollard comes out in hives when she sees something like a Ralph Lauren polo-symbol (incidentally, also one of my pet hates), evoking a No Logo ethic, of a kind. But plenty of times we’re told that Cayce buys DKNY cardigans or Fruit of the Loom T-shirts, and then cuts off their labels before wearing them. So she gets to be Naomi Klein and a coolly-dressed brand-junkie at the same time. Ugghh.

Bigend’s money is also what effectively drives the plot in both novels, making possible Cayce and Hollis’s hip trips to Japan and Russia and designer L A hotels. There’s a kind of dishonest pandering to the cool obscure all the way through these books, even though, of course, Gibson’s oeuvre itself is a mass phenomenon, and no doubt he wants to keep it that way.

Not really sure what the moral of all this is, except that questions of elitism, of desires for a cool which only People Like Us possess, are difficult to be honest about. The whole idea of a new media arts scene seems intimidatorily techie for a back-in-the-Victorian-era historian like me. And if it didn’t, in the way that Lovink thinks should be the case, how could its practitioners market themselves? Wouldn’t they have to peddle the kind of ‘I’m not really mass market even though I am’ dishonesty that underscores a William Gibson work? And don’t we all do that in some measure in our various endeavours, after a kind?

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