|KEEP ON GENERATING
On Cornelia Sollfrank's Multiple Authorships *
“A smart artist makes the machine do the work.” Cornelia Sollfrank (2003)
“The idea is the machine that makes the art.” Sol Le Witt (1970)
“I’d like to be a machine, wouldn’t you?” Andy Warhol (1963)
Let me begin by setting the record straight. Or rather point to a fundamental ambiguity. The first part of this text’s title is not my own. I did not come up with it and neither did Cornelia Sollfrank. A friend of hers signed an e-mail with the phrase (1) and Cornelia decided that we use it as the title of this text, hence framing the text with a line of instruction. To mention this little anecdote and formality would however be but pretentious if the artwork in question was not precisely about blurring and mixing concepts of originality and authorship. Let the games begin!
Cornelia Sollfrank’s net.art generator, an art work that started as an online software tool, has proliferated into different media and now includes video, animation, performance, print and painting. Over the years it has become one of the most complex and intriguing “escape attempts”(2) from the cultural logic of authorship to come out of contemporary art. However, Sollfrank also goes beyond “The Death of the Author” declared by Roland Barthes in 1967. She is not a coroner in that sense but a critical trickster of a midwife who in the context of digital art and culture explores – in order to challenge and trick – our preconceived ideas about authorship and its close associates reader/viewer, originality and intellectual property.
EVERYONE IS AN AUTHOR
The phrase “This is not by me” is printed on a small yellow sticker that Cornelia Sollfrank places on the back of the prints made from generated images that she exhibits. (3) The sticker functions as a signature. Sure, it is mass produced and not handwritten, but it is nevertheless authentic – and what it says is true. As will become evident from the following text, the printed images are in fact not by her, but signing them with a conceptual statement that pretends to subvert the traditional function of a signature, is her special way of claiming ownership. With a tongue-in-cheek and deadpan, subtleness the statement “This is not by me” locates the prints in a field of paradoxes and ambiguities as well as interpretive possibilities that form an integral part of her overall project. A relevant response to the sticker would thus be to ask who the images are by if they are not by her. Yet, Sollfrank is not interested in simple answers to such complex questions of identification or territorialisation. She engages rather with these questions as a critical and playful means to keep things open and thereby expand the concept of art and artist in the age of digital reproduction and distribution.
To cope with the complexities of that allegedly ‘simple’ question and the aesthetic concept it implies we need to take a closer look at the net.art generator and the workings that leads to the open-ended statement of the sticker.
The net.art generator consists in fact of not one but five generators, numbered from 1 to 5 according to their chronological order. (4) However, they all originate from the same basic concept: Cornelia Sollfrank selects a programmer and asks him or her to develop software that will enable its individual users to type in their name and a term which the software interprets as a keyword for a web search (building on existing search engines). The generator then uses the information gathered to generate a collage of the found digital data, images and/or text or computer code. The collages are then archived on the generator’s website and if Sollfrank likes the results, she makes prints of them, signs them with the sticker, and exhibits them in a gallery space – and eventually sells them. Sounds simple and easy? Well, it is, but only on the surface – whether the surface is the computer screen or the photo prints. To begin with, and to return to the question above, the net.art generator encompasses several authors. First, there is Sollfrank who conceived the concept, then there are the programmers, who interpreted the concept, then there are the users who ‘instruct’ the software, there is the software itself that does the search and creates the collage, and finally there is the World Wide Web, the dynamic online database where the generators find their material. No fixed hierarchy is expressed, everyone makes an important contribution. Of course, in a conventional sense, it is Sollfrank who takes credit in the end by exhibiting and selling the work, yet that option is not exclusive; every user, both in principle and practically, has the same option. Sollfrank holds no copyright on the generated collages. By exhibiting and selling the collages in an institutional context, the exploration of the logic of multiple authorships becomes an exploration of the parameters constituting the art world/market (and does not necessarily exclude the exploitation for her own economical benefit). Maybe even more than the works themselves, the art world/market is based on the notion of the single author, an identifiable and recognizable ‘face’ that can be turned into a trademark, while the multiple authorship of the net.art generatordefies that notion. In the end, it is nothing but a piece of software, lines of code that can be processed inside any computer, which obviously cannot have a face.
Multiple authorships are an increasingly common phenomenon in contemporary art in different forms, especially as regards contemporary digital media art. The net.art generator however is not about interdisciplinary, collective, or collaborative practice. It does not link the different authors in one unifying project. The programmer as well as the user is free to interpret and make use of the net.art generator, just as Sollfrank does. Instead of understanding multiple authorships as an ‘enlarged’ or ‘expanded’ form of authorship, the net.art generator takes the idea quite literally: the project does not have one, but several authors who are interconnected and interdependent. In fact it is more pertinent in this context to consider the net.art generatoras several projects in the sense that the different elements do not constitute a “total work of art” but a network of dynamic and distributed relations between several works of art and several authors.
By making it impossible and irrelevant to talk about one single author, the net.art generator turns the question ‘who is the author?’ into the question ‘what is an author?’ And “What is an Author?” is precisely the title of Michel Foucault’s famous 1969 talk in which he historically analyses the author – and implicitly the reader – as a construction of Western civilization and its emphasis on the individual. As he says, the author “performs a certain role with regard to the narrative discourse, assuring a classificatory function [which] permits one to group together a certain number of texts, define them, differentiate them from and contrast them to others.” This classificatory “author-function” is exactly what Sollfrank deliberately distorts with the net.art generator. She substitutes the author as an “ideological figure” who impedes the “proliferation of meaning” with a project, whose function is to circulate and multiply meaning as a means of criticizing the discourse of the author and ideally establish a new discourse in which the author is a highly ambiguous character and new forms of artistic practice are made possible and pertinent. Perhaps, that is the discourse Foucault imagines when he ends his talk by asking, “What difference does it make who is speaking?” In any case, what Sollfrank imagines and realizes with her work is an expanded field of practice and discourse, which the generator proper is only one part of.
INTO THE IMAGE NETWORK
True to its signature, the leitmotif of the project is the art of another artist, namely Andy Warhol, particularly the iconic flower prints made by the artist over a period of more than 30 years up until his death in 1987. By repeatedly typing “warhol flowers” in the nag_05 title space, Sollfrank has generated an endless number of digital collages, which she partly presents in the gallery space as digital or silkscreen prints, wall paintings and animation.
It is not a coincidence that Sollfrank picked Warhol and his flower prints. On the one hand, Warhol based his prints on an appropriated photograph by Patricia Caulfield, but he also often had the prints produced without being present during the process and, finally, right before he died, he worked with Amiga computers to make digital prints. In other words, by utilizing the means of her times, Sollfrank does precisely what Warhol did with the means of his, which expands and complicates the matter further. Rather than simply appropriating and modifying the images, she links them to distributed networks of digital information flows.
But Warhol is not the issue. Although “his” imagery, his name and person are present in all the works, the project is not about Warhol even if his anti-signature is being used. What the project explores is an image production and discourse generated by a distributed and disparate network of components over and above any kind of author figure, whether Warhol or Sollfrank herself. Because even though she has set up the network, she does not control its workings. In fact no one in the network has complete control over its workings.
Hence, instead of dealing with image production on the level of the individual, Sollfrank deals with how this network expands the culture of image production as well as the notion of the image itself.
Warhol himself challenged the individual aspect of image production with his silk-screen technique that allowed the motifs to be reproduced ad infinitum. Yet, Warhol was still in control of the whole process and he would always sign them regardless of who actually made his images. In this way he perfected his image production to the level of a machine, but a machine of the industrial age, in principle not different from the one in Ford’s car factory, whose reproductive logic and effectiveness Warhol admired and romanticized. Sollfrank does not share Warhol’s admiration or romanticism and she puts her challenge into practice with a different kind of machine, a contemporary one, the networked machine. This machine is just as effective as the ‘stand-alone’ machine, but its logic of image production is fundamentally different. For one thing it does not just (re)produce images, it generates them, and more importantly it generates them through a process and structure without any centre of control. Sollfrank’s networked machine is different from the individual artist-as-machine represented by Warhol, an artist who invents a machine that makes art instead of him. Rather the logic of the networked machine reflects that the artist as well as the machine is integrated in a networked culture of distributed and interconnected image production through processes of dialogue and exchange. The machine is not an isolated entity nor can it be ascribed to any single entity. The networked machine makes – and is made by – dynamic connections that transgresses such categorical definitions.
While Warhol is still worked within a tradition that placed the image in the spotlight, Sollfrank mainly occupies herself with the machine and with the image only by means of the machine. It is the practical and conceptual workings of the networked machine that generates the images that interest Sollfrank, not the actual images (although she finds them aesthetically interesting and exhibits them). In the context of the net.art generator, the images reflect the machine or express its workings and as such they cannot be separated from their production. Like the machine, they are not stand-alone; they are networked, by art history, by the World Wide Web, by software algorithms and by human interaction with the machine.
All the newly generated flower images, digital prints, paintings and animations, are made by the same networked machine; and all exist on a horizontal plane where no image is more significant, more authentic or unique than any other. Yet, they are not identical. The networked machine is not intended for old school reproduction. As outlined above, it generates, which means that every image production is a repetition of all past and future image productions, a repetition with a difference. The network that works the machine is constantly changing and so are the images it generates. Thus, rather than challenging the originality of the singular image through serial reproduction – which was Warhol’s approach – the net.art generator deconstructs originality by conceiving the image as a networked repetition. No image is ever original in the sense that Greenbergian Modernism claimed, just as no image is ever reproducible in the sense that Benjaminian Modernism or the Postmodernism of the readymade tradition claimed. The net.art generator expresses a kind of ‘Post-Postmodernism’ where the image is not even the question anymore. The image is secondary to the networked machine generating the image and this machine frames any notion of and discourse on the image. Yet, as material and visual manifestation of the machine, the images in turn also feed back into the notion of and discourse on the machine.
TO COPY OR NOT TO COPY – THAT IS NOT THE QUESTION
Another important aspect of Cornelia Sollfrank’s net.art generator and her use of Warhol’s flower motif is the challenge of copyright in the context of art history and culture in general. The challenge is not only formulated through the generated images. In the exhibition project “This is not by me,” the images are complemented by three videos that extend the challenge to the level of a philosophical, a legal and an aesthetic discourse. Featuring herself, four lawyers and Andy Warhol, the videos’ intentionally dry documentary style contrast the images’ exuberant visual energy. However, the videos are inseparable from the images, and vice versa. They constitute each other’s paratexts, so to speak. The videos emphasize the fact that the images are not pure visual entities in the tradition of Modernism that Warhol still believed in, despite his irony. The images generated by the net.art generator (like images in general) are traversed by cultural languages or – to use a term that is more appropriate in this context – by cultural codes. Warhol definitely was aware of this ‘coded’ condition of images, that is what he played with, and Sollfrank is aware of that when she uses Warhol to address the codes or the codedness of his images. She thereby shifts the focus of perception from the realm of the visual to the realm of the conceptual and the net.art generator comes to generate not only images but also discourse. A discourse that, contrary to how Foucault defined it, does not try to exercise power but to distort power in the name of artistic conceptualizations, fictions and imaginaries; and it is namely the discourse of copyright, originality and authorship that Sollfrank distorts with her discourse, the very discourse which was essential to the Modernism formed around American painting and sculpture in the post-war period parallel to the emergence of a new political and economical culture of individualism; a version of Modernism that Warhol responded to by working in the tradition of other versions of Modernism, namely the avant-gardes of the first half of the 20th century, including Constructivism, Dada and Duchamp.
The three videos are each quite different as regards their specific take on copyright. In Copyright © 2004 Cornelia Sollfrank, the artist sits next to a monitor showing a generated ‘Warhol flower’ image. Dressed in a black turtleneck and glasses like a modernist intellectual, she reads and discusses one of her own texts that has the same title. The text is concerned with who the author of the image is and includes legal research conducted in the field of computer-generated work as well as joint authorship. However, the thoroughness of the text comes to the conclusion that it is impossible to identify one single author of the image, but five possible authors instead, thus transforming the question of authorship into an ambiguous and open-ended matter. The visual aesthetics of the image are subverted by a conceptual complexity that challenges the language and thinking associated with images, not least when it comes to the discourse on copyright. The identification of an origin is impossible, if not downright ridiculous. The image is generated by a network without origin, centre or identity, and instead of trying to fit it into the existing discourse, the video demonstrates the limits of that discourse. In Legal Perspective (2004) (7), Sollfrank continues challenging the legal system by presenting her work to four copyright lawyers, asking them to comment on it. The lawyers apply their tools on the work and reach very different – even contradictory – conclusions about its legal status. Particularly the uncertain balance between the consideration of copyright law and the right of the artistic freedom – both granted under the German constitution – gives them pause for reflection. Or rather causes the legal system to reflect on itself to the point of conceptual paradox or absurdity.(8) The net.art generator thus exposes the legal system in its current form as unable to deal with works of its nature. In that sense the work exceeds the legal system, overriding legal rationality with artistic ambiguity.
What kind of discourse is required to deal with the net.art generator is hinted at in the third video I DON’T KNOW (1968/2006). The video is a staged interview with Andy Warhol for which Sollfrank used parts of old interviews with the artist and combined them with new shots. She asks Warhol about the principles underlying his work, his understanding of copyright and intellectual property and introduces him to the net.art generator and her use of the flower images. He mostly answers “Yes,” “No,” or “I don’t know” to her informed (and leading) questions about copyright. But when it comes to the million-dollar question whether or not he accepts the reworkings of his images by the net.art generator, he finally answers in the affirmative, thus making the case clear: permission granted by the author. Sollfrank again uses her artistic freedom to outsmart the legal system and reverse all rights – as it says at the end of the video – at least within the context of the work.
All three videos address the problems of copyright law without falling back on a moralist discussion for or against it. Things are not that black and white here. They exploit instead the grey area where things oscillate between the protection of copyright on the one hand, and the development of artistic freedom on the other. The former is based on a constituted legal system whereas the latter is based on an open-ended aesthetic system. In a broader sense, the two systems represent two cultural models, one of fixed values, and one of dynamic relations. Sollfrank does not express her stance (as the title of her project makes explicit, this is not by her) but she implicitly asks us to reflect upon the relation between them and how that relation influences the production of art and culture. However, it is not just a question of ‘to copy or not to copy,’ but of what kinds of conceptual tools we use to understand and develop the system, the legal as well as the cultural. As a conceptual tool, the net.art generator delivers no simple solutions and it certainly does not fix the problems of copyright law. It encourages us to engage with the system analytically and critically through the free play of art instead – with all the ironies, irrationalities and subtleties it allows – as well as all the trouble this might cause.
DON’T JUST DO IT: GENERATE!
By choosing the title “Keep on Generating” for this text, Sollfrank directly invites us to continue using the tool, to continue generating images and discourse, and to realize that the tool is about generating open-ended processes, not about the production of specific objects. Only by getting rid of objects and engaging with processes can we begin to perceive the author, originality and copyright in a more expanded sense – conceptually as well as in practice – and imagine a culture truly enriched by the manifold possibilities of digitized and networked information.
So while the imperative of the title might echo Nike’s neo-liberal invitation to everyone to “Just do it,” the net.art generator implies a different kind of transgressive activity – for its users and culture at large. It is neither about the production of precious objects nor about self-expression/self-realization through such productions. Concepts of production and self are in fact what the work deliberately and fundamentally distorts and replaces with a concept of the generative network based on personal engagement, collaboration and mechanical processes. Although it offers the chance to produce beautiful artworks that you can hang in your living room, using the net.art generator is actually about leaving the nicely decorated private space and actively engaging in the network.
In that sense, the user of the net.art generator also turns away from the user promoted by the current Web 2.0 trend that focuses on the user becoming an unpaid producer (of content). The user/producer of Web 2.0 is the kind of user imagined by Nike’s slogan, an affirmative individual who uses (or is used by) the constituted legal and aesthetic systems to express and realize herself (that it benefits the corporations that controls the content platforms and other users who can access the content is secondary in this context). Not so with the user of the net.art generator. Firstly, the user challenges the system in power (the copyright law). Secondly, she is not expressing or realizing herself since whatever she produces will not be by her. To let go of the self in this way is surely alienating and disturbing, but it is only by radically changing the conceptual framework of artistic production and accepting that change can we fundamentally begin to work our way towards a culture beyond the letter of the law where our desires to generate meaning are informed by an aesthetic intellect and sensibility that embraces play, ambiguity and openness; and where the possibilities of making art are continuously expanded by the involvement of networked machines and multiplicities.
Thanks to Jaime Stapleton for discussing this text with its multiple authors.
(1) Thanks to Timothy Didymus
(2) It was the critic and curator Lucy Lippard who in a retrospective text on conceptual art used the term “escape attempts” to describe how conceptual art attempted to escape the ideology of the art institution through making ‘unsellable’, ‘objectless’ and ‘non-artistic’ work. Sollfrank’s work and especially the net.art generator is an heir to these escapes attempts. As all true successors, it nevertheless also takes the institutional critique in a different direction, that of authorship within the context of software culture.
(3) The phrase itself is indeed not by her but borrowed from Andy Warhol who signed a number of prints using it in the early 1970s when ‘fake Warhols’ had started to circulate. And the phrase ‘This is not by me’ is also the title of an exhibition project that Sollfrank realised at several venues in Europe and Asia. The exhibition ‘This is not by me’ at Kunstverein Hildesheim in 2006 was also the point of departure for this text.
(4) Originally the net.art generator consisted of five equally listed generators, but now one of them is “out of order” and two others have been categorised as “historical versions” although still functional. The net.art generator thus currently consists of number 4 and 5. See http://net.art-generator.com/src/gen.html
(5) Due to this process, the generators are quite different in terms of design and functionalities. The most elaborate (and the one Sollfrank herself has used the most) is nag_05 (programmed by Panos Galanis, iap GmbH), which processes only images and allows the users to set a number of parameters, for instance the number of images (2-8), the maximum width (400-1000 pixels) and file format (jpg, gif, png).
(6) The shift is evident in the untitled work-in-progress in which Sollfrank hangs 6-10 identical prints next to each other. The prints are only distinguished by a little chip on the reverse containing fragments of literary, legal and theoretical texts, like a traditional signature. In other words, it is text, here in the form of external and invisible data that identifies the images rather than the visual characteristics of the images themselves. Visual specificity is overruled by conceptual abstraction and the actual images are transformed into media for an aesthetic discourse that is not concerned with identity or identification, but with the conditions of both.
(8) One objective of the net.art generator is to have the two departments of the Andy Warhol Foundation, the one that that protects his copyright and the one that promotes his heritage, to go to court against each other. Although parts of the same estate, the two departments to opposite ends and do not communicate with each other.