Microsoft and the Metal Resistance



'Microsoft and the metal resistance' Art Monthly March: 6-8 (1996)

On August 24 1995, Microsoft's new operating system was released to the world. With a rock'n roll salute and online circus tents, Windows 95© inaugurated a new ’soft' regime of daily office life. The physical handling of stationary, with its hazards of paper cuts and staple nicks, is now superseded by electronic document exchange and ’one click’ Internet access. Could a mainstream computing upgrade be of any relevance to the arts? A brief look at the millennial aesthetics implicit in the desktop reveals a narrow range of human experience--something the arts might well take as a challenge if they wish to remain responsive to contemporary life.

Microsoft have already popularised a graphic technique which floats letters above a background, casting shadows detached from the foregrounded characters. Windows 95© extends this aesthetic in a desktop choreography that opens with a fanfare of sound and image verging on the celestial. Ambient tones designed by Brian Eno herald a supernal desktop of blue sky and clouds. In addition to practical accessories, users are indulged with a series of screen devices that orchestrate this beatific reverie. Various animations and videos designed to demonstrate multimedia capacity create a ’floating world’ of mellow days: Edie Brickel lounges on the sidewalk singing ’You don’t have to try’, Weezer perform a grunge tribute to Happy Days, and a butterfly slips in and out of frame. For a more extended diversion, a computer game called Hover simulates a dodgem car race free of nasty collisions. Why take morphine?

This carefree aesthetic is complemented by an ideology which fuses the traditionally separate domains of home and workan ideology Bill Gates himself celebrates as ’friction-free capitalism’. Thus files on the hard disk are accessed through an icon titled ’My Computer’, reflecting the ethos of individual commitment on which privatisation is based. Windows 95© even refers to regularly used files as ’Favorites’, rather than ’Quickfind’ or ’Regular’. Using the currently popular phrase, Windows provides the platform for users to ’play hard’, merging private recreation with serious work.

Looking back from the next millennium, we might well draw upon Windows 95© as a nostalgic archive of the new world order that once glowed with optimism and kindness. Its boundless faith in ’networks’ may well be viewed then with the same kind of skepticism in which we now cast the 1960s celebration of ’love power’. Seeds for this skepticism are already appearing the publications urging a humanistic reappraisal of the digital revolution. One of the most eloquent of these, Sven Birkert’s Gutenberg Elegies, stakes its argument on the notion of a restricted economy of meaning. Simply put, the more information you have, the less time you have to digest it. Compelled to construct an optimistic scenario, Birkerts underpins this closed system with a psychoanalytic dynamic:

Our relentless focus on external matters, our near-exclusive preoccupation with vaulting the techno-hurdles which are necessary, of course, to bring about any substantial societal transformation may be creating what firefighters call a ’backdraft’: a depletion so severe that it can result in a sudden explosion.

Birkerts’ own symptomatology of this ’backdraft’ includes films such as Clint Eastwood’s Bridges of Madison County which promote an extinct ideal of the feckless off-line individual. To those who still prefer the bench to the screen, this prospect of ’backdraft’ offers a hopeful alternative to aesthetic redundancy.

But this is not a time to be complacent. Birkerts’ ’backdraft’ narrative, like Heidegger’s ’turning’, encourages a Marxist-like faith in historical process. Their belief in a technological reversal back to more poetic modes of being induces a ’sit back and wait’ attitude to the digital revolution. It is a gamble with history. But now that private speculation is rife, we may be better served with a more active strategy which constructs an alternative picture to the disembodied ’cool’ world supplied by corporations like Microsoft. A revived language of materiality is needed to express the experience of difficulty and mortality currently glossed over by network utopias. The basis for this language lies in the alternative aesthetics already at work in more traditional media.

Popular Gothic

At a popular level, the teenage fascination with macabre mythology stands as stark contrast to the user-friendly empire of home computing. The Hollywood gothic of Anne Rice vampire epics such as Interview with Vampire finds consolation from social alienation in a nocturnal logic of evil powers. Like the Satan-worship of heavy metal music, today’s Gothic mythology is inherently romantic: evil destiny emanates from a spirit beyond everyday life. The supernatural origin of the Gothic hero elevates his plight from social issues like unemployment.

Of today’s Gothic heroes, the most pertinent to our interests are the serial killers. In Silence of the Lambs, the charismatic Hannibal Lechter demonstrates a profound olfactory sensitivity lost to mainstream visual culture. And more recently in Seven, the religious fanatic John Doe makes his statement against social apathy with a gruesome passion play of metal and flesh. While not wanting to follow in the footsteps of serial killers, their current position as sites of corporeal fascination provides us with a deep memory of materiality in mass culture...

The Home Front

The popular Gothic movement serves as less a critique and more a necessary counterpoint to the info-enlightenment. Like the Addams family, it serves up exactly the contrast that the realm of user-friendly needs in order to define itself. Though it might seem sentimental to today’s tastes, the organic aesthetic revived in the nineteenth century by writers such as Ruskin, Morris and Godwin provides a more productive ground of critique. The contrast Ruskin exercised in Stones of Venice between the languid sensuality of the south and the energetic ornamentation of the north is apposite to the kind of counterbalance we’re in the business constructing here. The Gothic craftsman for Ruskin is a being of unbounded energy who takes to the less pliable materials of rock and metal…

with rough strength and hurried stroke, he smites an uncouth animation out of rocks which he has torn from among the moss of this moorland, and heaves into the darkened air of the pile of iron buttress and rugged wall, instinct with a work of an imagination as wild and waywards as the northern sea; creations of ungainly shape and rigid limb, but full of wolfish life 

One of the six essential elements of Ruskin’s Gothic is ’naturalism’. For Ruskin, ’love of fact’ tied the progress in empirical sciences to the adoration of natural form evident in foliated ornament. This celebration of action above contemplation reflects a Germanic suspicion towards romantic escapism, shared by writers like Novalis, who believed that ’life should not be a romance given to us, but a romance that we have made’. To find evidence of this Gothic attitude today we might look less to the dark side and more to the everyday encounter between human life and resistant substance.

In recent years, Fiona Hall has moved from the silver emulsions of the darkroom to the less precious metals found in the kitchen. Her Paradisus Terrestris series of sardine tin sculptures fused earth and metal in cameos from the garden. She sees her more recent move into aluminium is a move away from the yellow and warm substance of tin to the cooler qualities of this abundant metal.

Like a reliquary of post-colonialism, Hall’s infant’s matinee jacket knitted out of Coca-Cola cans has toured many galleries since its initial emergence in the Biodata exhibition at the Contemporary Art Centre of South Australia. Consistent with Gertsakis’ exhibition, it offers palpable testimony to the involvement of multinational corporations in the deadly diet of third-world children (and the spermicidal properties of the Coca-Cola). In addition to this critical juxtaposition of metal and flesh, however, is a recuperation of meaning through artistic labour. The elementary handicraft of knitting introduces an agency of domestic being which has the capacity to bend global industrialism to its own will.

With prodigious energy, Hall has extended her production recently with the manufacture of blankets woven entirely of emptied drink cans. Titled The Social Fabric for the MCA’s Localities of Desire exhibition, it now finds its way into Give a Dog a Bone, the title of Hall’s installation for the Adelaide Festival. Inside a shipping container, among carved soap and a crocheted aluminium shopping bag, is a photographic portrait of the artist’s father, wearing nothing but this tightly meshed metalwork. He bears the aluminium cape with a fraught nobility, as though he were a conquered patriarch displaying the trophy of an extinct craft. At play here is not abjection towards metal, but a luxuriant recovery of meaning from the detritus of modern life.

It’s a deeply ironic victory. As proponents of the aborted carbon tax know to their peril, aluminium is extracted from bauxite at great energy cost. Hall subjects this low-labour high-energy material to a labour-intensive and low energy process. 

This irony has been embellished textually in her recently published book of observations, Subject to Change. Complementing her fey reflections are combinations of embossed aluminium images and archaic forms, such as etchings and obsolete kitchen equipment. Her story ’In the Kitchen’ descends into reflection on the contents of a drawer, among which is found a New York subway token. Hall’s impression of the unlikely gathering of objects continues in a reminiscence of a past Manhattan commute:

She is swallowed into the system, lurching in unison with her fellow travelers, holding on tightly to keep her balance as far as she can without touching them.  

Humans are cast in the same role as the domestic flotsam we might uncover in the unsupervised spaces of ordinary life.

This embrace of daily detritus runs counter to the domestic economies which Italo Calvino analysed eloquently at the end of his life in The Road to San Giovanni. Personally commissioned with the male duty of rubbish collection, Calvino noted that: ’Only by throwing something away can I be sure that something of myself has not yet been thrown away and perhaps need not be thrown away now or in the future.’ In Calvino’s twist of logic, it is the excess which defines the essential. Hall’s domestic alchemy retrieves this excess.

The artist’s particular choice of metal adds a further dimension to this recovery. In the taxonomy of kitchen refuse, there is a primary division between vegetable matter and consumer packaging. The former extends the private economy as scraps for compost while the latter is destined for the public realm of industrial compactors and smelters. In Suburbs of the Sacred, Humphrey McQueen critiqued this bifurcation as reinforcing the powerlessness of individuals in the larger system: ’Though this division is supposed to offer a consolation, its denial of human activity separates us from the remaking processes necessary to transform the urban-industrial dreadfulness into something more attractive.’ While personalised operating systems offer home information consumers a seamless place in global computer networks, Hall maintains a vigil on the home as a site of autonomous power and logic.

Given the mercurial nature of Hall’s production, you might expect that her work exists in isolation. On the contrary, knitting in metal seems a very productive line for many artists at the moment. In place of Hall’s manual intensity, however, we find a more direct contrast between high and law roads of material culture...

’Active rigidity’

As the final material for examination in these articles, soft metal most clearly delineates the battleground between individual experience and commodification: clay becomes the epitome of substance lacking in digital media, stone inherits the labour of memory expunged from an information society, glass speaks for the fear of physical contact, and metal braces those slouching towards the millennium. Clashing with the sublime tones of Microsoftness, we hear the words of Ruskin, celebrating that Gothic love of ’active rigidity’:

the peculiar energy which gives tension to movement, and stiffness to resistance, which makes the fiercest lightning forked rather than curved, and the stoutest oak-branch angular rather than bending, and is as much seen in the quivering of the lance as in the glittering of the icicle.

To knit metal in the 1990s presents a challenge to the corporate aesthetic with which we fashion our everyday lives. The picture of an artist curled up on the lounge, setting her knitting needles to work on shredded Coca-Cola© cans, is an emblem of resistance to the flattened vista of a mouse-driven future. For her, metal matters in a way which is difficult, demanding, stubborn, and seriously alive.

This article is assisted by the Commonwealth Government through the Australia Council, its arts funding and advisory body.