Ars Electronica 1986
Festival-Program 1986
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Festival 1979-2007


Metadesign: towards a postmodernism of reconstruction

'Gene Youngblood Gene Youngblood


The concept "orbital age" evokes the myth of a communications revolution, a myth as old as television. According to this myth, new telecommunication technologies can and will invert the structure and function of mass media (a) from centralized output to decentralized input, (b) from hierarchy to heterarchy, (c) from mass audience to special audience, (d) from communication to conversation, (e) from commerce to community, (f) from nationstate to global village.

In other words, according to this myth the cultural imperialism of the mass media would be replaced by autonomous "reality-communities"—social groups of politically significant magnitude realized as communities through telecommunication networks and defined, therefore, not by geography but by consciousness, ideology and desire. Constituents of these electronic communities, empowered with tools for simulation and conversation, might both produce models of possible realities (art) and control the cultural context within which those models were published and perceived (politics)—the communications revolution is synonymous with cultural revolution.

The communications revolution remains both mythological and politically imperative, for only through a radical inversion of dominant communication structures can we begin to create at the same scale as we can destroy: the counterforce to the scale of destruction is the scale of communication.

The role of art in the communications revolution is highly problematic, for as everyone knows, the theories and practices of the fine arts tradition are almost totally irrelevant to contemporary technocultural and sociopolitical reality.

In any culturally and politically relevant sense, art as we have known it is dead. The "postmodernism of resistance" represents a failure of imagination: it does not enable us to create at the same scale as we can destroy. Appropriate strategies are now extra-aesthetic and super-cultural—accessible only OUTSIDE the fine arts tradition. The only relevant strategy now is METADESIGN—the creation of context rather than content. Telecommunication networks, computer programs and interactive disc technologies are examples of metadesign. They are metasystems, environments in which others may control the context of their cultural productions.

The concept of an avantgarde, disavowed by postmodern theory, is actually more relevant today than ever before, but it has nothing to do with aesthetics. Only social situations, not artworks, qualify as avantgarde. We need access to alternative experience, not merely new ideas, for we know more about our being than we have being for what we know. Today only metadesign satisfies the original criteria for avantgarde practice:
(a) it represents the only new frontier: electronic virtual space and the art and politics of simulation.
(b) it alone can subvert the status-quo: the rise of autonomous reality-communities is synonymous with cultural revolution.
(c) it involves a redefinition of the institution of art: a utilitarian and instrumental practice, concerned with context rather than content.

Metadesign reconciles art and politics: it empowers art to be politically effective. Metadesigners work with cultural context, not political issues. They work not to exclaim a political idea but to establish situations in which any idea may become politicized merely by its presence in that context. Their goal is to empower rather than propagandize. Empowering electronic communities to control meaning and context is a revolutionary act. Whereas the postmodernism of DEconstruction posits ideological subversion as an absolute value in ART, the postmodernism of REconstruction posits ideological autonomy as an absolute value in LIFE.