Superscript 2015: Dan Fox
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Superscript 2015: Dan Fox

Presented as part of the Artists as Cultural First Responders panel at the Superscript 2015 conference. To view the entire panel discussion playlist, click here.

Dan Fox is coeditor at frieze magazine and is based in New York City. Fox’s writing has appeared in numerous exhibition catalogues and in publications as diverse as Bulletins of The Serving Library, Dot Dot Dot, Frozen Tears, and GQ. He is a visiting lecturer at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art, Oxford University, a musician, and codirector of the music label Junior Aspirin Records. His book Pretentiousness: Why It Matters will be published by Fitzcarraldo Editions in 2015.


So, I’d like to begin by playing dumb. I’ve been worrying about this phrase “artists as cultural first responders” ever since the invitation to take part on this panel arrived. Worried because, I’ll admit, I didn’t really understand it. I turned it over in the light, tried to gauge the weight of it. I tried to work out what it was made from. I sensed that it might be something about artists as citizen journalists, perhaps, or Trojan Horse activists bravely storming the bastille of social media. But still, my initial sense was that it made me feel uncomfortable. It sounded—and here’s where I have to apologize to my lovely hosts at the Walker—it sounded melodramatic. For some reason I could not help but read the term “first responder” literally. Artists, vital though they are in our society—crucial though they are to our understanding of each other, to making the world a more interesting place—are not paramedics, they’re not firefighters, coastguards, or law enforcement officials. (Although some paramedics, firefighters, coastguards or law enforcement officials may well be artists.) A painting of a fire engine is not going to put out the blazing inferno engulfing an apartment block or rescue a cat stuck up a tree. A 3D-printed sculpture of your left hand isn’t going to dig survivors out from the rubble of an earthquake or taser an innocent man.

I could have pressed the curators for more clarity, but instead I decided to consult higher authorities. According to the United States Homeland Security Presidential Directive No. 8: “The term “first responder” refers to those individuals who in the early stages of an incident are responsible for the protection and preservation of life, property, evidence, and the environment […] as well as emergency management, public health, clinical care, public works, and other skilled support personnel (such as equipment operators) that provide immediate support services during prevention, response, and recovery operations.”

Now, I know it seems willfully obtuse and pedantic to continue pursuing the literal meaning of this term “cultural first responder” but in doing so I discovered that the exercise of trying to find parallels between the real-world definition of “first responder” and this creative context began to raise some intriguing questions. First of these might be about “protection and preservation”: is that what artists really do? What does it mean if “the interplay between platform and content” (to quote the description of this panel discussion) is a question of “prevention and recovery” rather than innovation, say, or critical intervention, or creative destruction. What if—to come at this from an extremely paranoid angle—artists are not the “first responders,” but the emergency incident itself, and that the “first responders” are not nice, cuddly creative individuals but those involved in the actual development of new technology platforms, plundering methodologies from art in order to monetize them, turn them into some time-swallowing new app?

Let’s say the artists are the responders. What incident might they be responding to? The Homeland Security directive refers to the “early stages of an incident.” This is something that other people during the course of the conference have already spoken about, so excuse me for repeating it. Given the topic of “the digital age” that frames this conference, we can assume on a grand historical perspective “the incident” to be the bracing Internet revolution we’ve been living through for the last 15 to 20 years. If that’s the incident, then it was only a small handful of artists that rushed to the scene at the “early stages,” and—until recently,—they were quickly abandoned. Think, for instance, about how quickly the art world in the early 2000s became embarrassed of 1990s “net art” and “media lounges” in museums. Think too, how the art world for a long time remained insulated from many of the changes being brought to the arts at large by the forces of social media and file-sharing, and essentially remained analogue in what it produced. In a 2011 essay for frieze magazine, because I’ve got to get the advertisement in there somewhere, curator Lauren Cornell described how “unlike other industries, such as music and publishing, the art world wasn’t forced to react to cultural shifts wrought by the Internet because its economic model wasn’t devastated by them. The quality of Christian Marclay’s The Clock (2010), for instance, isn’t dependent on YouTube votes or the extent to which it circulates virally, and nor can one download and install a BitTorrent of a Rachel Harrison sculpture. The principles that keep the visual arts economy running—scarcity, objecthood and value conferred by authority figures such as curators and critics—make it less vulnerable to piracy and democratized media.” (I would like to qualify that slightly, by making clear that we’re speaking in broad brushstrokes here. Technology changes, and will surely come and bite the analogue arse of artists sooner or later. The stickier reality is that what we call “the art world” means many things to many people, and your experience of its conditions differs depending on where you are positioned in relation to it in terms of geography, economics, race, gender and sexuality.)

But back to the topic.

At risk of plumbing the depths of my own crass literalism even further: what does it mean, then, to entertain the idea that in recent years artists have not proven themselves to be “cultural first responders,” because there was no urgency for them to be so, but maybe “second” or even “third responders”? Maybe artists should not be “first responders” anyway. There’s something a little self-aggrandizing about assuming artists should be on the front line. An artist’s work may well be more valuable in the space of reflection, in mulling things over, assessing the situation across a longer period of time. On the front line, they might just get in the way.

We also need to define what we mean by artists. Visual artists are the only creative workers who use the word “art” in the title of their own profession—writers, actors, critics, dancers, musicians, designers, film directors; they’re all artists too, but the appellation tends to get owned by visual artists—a bit like the way the country of “America” takes the name of two continents and owns it for itself. As we’re in a big institution which dedicates a lot of what it does to the visual arts, I assume it’s visual artists to whom we’re referring in this conference but I think it’s artists in the broadest sense whom we should be thinking about here. This is a broad generalization again, but conversations in the visual arts sometimes have a tendency to refer to other creative disciplines as if they exist as pick’n’mix sources of inspiration, or areas for visual artists to study occasionally in order to “critique” them, as if only artists are capable of having deep insights into what other people do.

Indeed if the incidents to which creative people are responding are the technological and concomitant social changes brought by the Internet, then maybe it’s musicians, publishers, writers and filmmakers we should be looking to as the “first responders,” for it’s their means of making a living, of distributing and valuing their work, that have really drastically altered in the past decade and a half—they should be here at this conference because we’re all in this together. That said, a part of me can’t help but think that to call any artists “cultural first responders” is to buy into an older Romantic myth of the artist as seer, soothsayer, oracle. “The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths”, as Bruce Nauman put it sarcastically. But words associated with the arts also have slippery meanings today, changing valences. For instance, in our lifetimes, the word “creative” has migrated from being a nice, friendly adjective into a noun, a common job title in large technology businesses developing platforms that many of us—artists or otherwise—use daily. What does that mean when we ask who gets to set the agenda for the “interplay of platform and content,” or talk about “media inventors who create altogether new modes of storytelling, makers who use online means to critique institutional power?”

Some of the more powerful “media inventors” and “makers” are deeply embedded in the very institutions that need critiquing—not museums and galleries but government agencies, Silicon Valley corporations and tech start-ups. They are the ones spinning new modes of storytelling about the world, positioning themselves as “disruptors” whose “creative technologies” are going to make the world a better place. I could be wrong, or simply stuck in my own little corner of the art world, which is quite possible, but I don’t see that many visual artists or arts writers making entirely new communications platforms that will revolutionize how you watch video art or call your grandma on her birthday. That might shift generationally, as more people understand how to take control of the engine mechanics, rather than being stuck with the given functionality of the software offered to us by the tech industry. Or maybe—looking around at how many of us are glancing at our various devices in the room and—sorry, I’ve lost my place—using platforms designed by technology companies they have no dialogue with or control over—“cultural first response” is nothing more than trolling conference speakers on Twitter like a child sniggering at the back of the class. At times I feel that the best “first response” might be to switch off your devices, throw them out and go live off the grid. We don’t all have to be making art that engages with technology; it’s still fine to make a painting. You can still write art criticism using all the tools that tech provides, but it’s still an option to write a long essay and publish it in a book made from paper.

The idea of a “first responder” implies responsibility and authority. These days we’re all reviewers, we’ve all got an opinion about that exhibition, TV show, restaurant. But that assumes certain freedoms. I know artists who do not live in countries such as the US, and this is something Marisa spoke about very eloquently, artists who live in countries where being a “first responder” is impossible for reasons of censorship or harshly conservative cultural attitudes. There are critics who are more worried about being arrested the next day than whether they should accept a flat fee or be paid a dollar a word for their exhibition picks of the week. So we come back to the issue of second or third response. A second or third response might mean building a second or third layer of meaning, of encoding, onto what an artist makes, and that could be for reasons of security as much as anything. (Think, for instance, of how playwrights living under the Soviet Union used surrealism or science fiction in order to talk about their political situation.) Secondary or tertiary response might also mean taking a step back, responding slowly. The speed of opinion in the digital age demands instant response, instant punditry to news events, and the arts aren’t insulated from that. I’ve been working as a critic since 1999 and in that time I’ve felt the pull of the Gs, seen the pedal hit the metal; I have to get my review of the new Whitney Museum, say, or Venice Biennale, published within nano-seconds of the doors opening; there is now an assumption is that art critics have to go at the same speed as news reporters, sports journalists and gossip columnists. But the one question we don’t ask often enough is “what speed” should be of the essence? A reflective review written slowly, published a couple of months after the event, can be just as valuable than the snappy one published in the heat of the moment. (As Yeats observed, “the worst are full of passionate intensity.”) Life doesn’t reveal itself to us all at once, and neither does art. Making things—whether it’s a piece of online art, an essay, a movie or a dance—takes time and there is value in refusing to live in the fast lane.

Let’s quickly remind ourselves of the legal U.S. government definition of “first responder”: they are “responsible for the protection and preservation of life, property, evidence, and the environment.” Is the question we should be asking ourselves not one about making the new but valuing the old?

As the conversations we’ve seen over the last two days have demonstrated, there is a sense of embattlement amongst some of us. The general tenor of the conversations this weekend has been that we are trying to protect and preserve something; striving to preserve imaginative, thoughtful, constructive responses to culture; defending a space in which you can live a life of the mind, a life of the creative hand, from the douchebags who have turned the world into such a harsh economic environment. On the other hand we need to ask what is worth protecting and preserving that doesn’t just shore up all the old structures.

If you’ll excuse me, I’d like to swerve sharply off the main road for a moment and head in the direction of big, clunky, boulder-like metaphors and some hastily conceived ideas. Just lately—and because this is the sort of nonsense that fills my mind—I’ve been thinking about a movie, made for TV in 1985, called Max Headroom: 20 Minutes into the Future. The film is set in a United Kingdom run by a small handful of media organization and corporations. TV sets have no “off switch,” and the corporate oligarchy monitors the personal lives and data of every single citizen through the TV, which feeds a non-stop diet of reality-style shows voted for by viewers. A popular journalist named Edison Carter, played by the actor Matt Frewer, has recently been employed by one of these media companies, Network 23. His job involves running around the city chasing news stories using cameras that provide a direct feed to the TV network: he is a first responder in real-time—journalist and producer all wrapped up into one. Carter has discovered that the network is pushing a form of subliminal advertising called “blipverts” that cause seizures and can kill people who see them. In the course of gathering evidence he suffers an accident, running his vehicle into a low-clearance sign (which, in the UK, are marked “Max Headroom,” an abbreviation of “Maximum Headroom”). Network 23 thinks Carter is a goner, but worry about their ratings, so get a young computer whizz to “download” Carter’s personality and create an artificial intelligence avatar of him to cover up the disappearance. Unfortunately for them, the avatar is broken; it stutters, glitches. The Network gets rid of it, and it falls into the hands of a local pirate TV station, who tinker with the avatar, semi-fix it, and create a new kind of TV show host called Max Headroom who makes sarcastic comments against a floating backdrop of vector graphics. In the meantime, Carter awakes from his coma, and uses Max as a diversion, allowing him to ultimately expose the Network 23 honchos for the crooks they are.

What’s this sudden tangent got to do with artists as cultural first responders?

Well, for one thing there are the superficial parallels in the plot between our present and those 20 minutes into the future; citizen journalists, social media, uploading news straight to the network. We’re all broadcasters now. Arts criticism is a branch of arts broadcasting, but writing has always been broadcast. Secondly, in Max Headroom there’s this idea of the artist as a gremlin in the machine, a renegade that infiltrates more powerful media forces, cleverly providing a meta-commentary on the system. (Following the movie, the Max character went on to host music TV shows and appear on a record with the band the Art of Noise.) It’s a romantic idea, but as I mentioned earlier, now that larger business forces use the language of the creative arts—of disruption and subversion and virality—in order to innovate new products, maybe it’s an outdated look. To be inside something is not necessarily to critique it. Printing out Instagram photos and hanging them in a gallery isn’t “making work about the Internet,” it’s just ice-skating across the top of it.

On November 22, 1987, two television stations in the Chicago area—WGN-TV and WTTW—experienced a “broadcast signal intrusion”; the stations were briefly hijacked by a masked figure dressed as Max Headroom, filmed in front of a rotating piece of corrugated steel, emulating the moving digital environment that Max lived in. To this day, nobody knows who perpetrated the broadcast intrusion, nor really, what he wanted. But it represented, however briefly, a situation in which the means of distribution were seized. There are obvious parallels today in hacking that I don’t have time to go into now. But this train of thought—from Max Headroom to the broadcast signal intrusion reminds me that our present relationship to the Internet is merely part of an older story of the relationship between artists and the media and screen culture.

Two quick examples. Between 1973 and 1977 Chris Burden produced his “TV Commercials” – he bought advertising space on local television Through the Night Softly, Poem for L.A, Chris Burden Promo, and Full Financial Disclosure. Through the Night Softly was a performance where Burden held his hands behind his back and crawled through fifty feet of broken glass on Main Street in Los Angeles. Even earlier, in 1971, the British artist David Hall made his seven “TV Interruptions”: seven short films broadcast on Scottish TV with no explanation or contextual framing. Did anything change in the ways TV affected us? No. The traction that art has on the world is by and large small, slow, incremental. The second, third, fourth response.

Finally, and maybe most importantly, when the movie was made in 1985, the technology did not exist to produce an actual A.I. avatar. (Or at least it was beyond the budget of this TV production.) When actor Matt Frewer played Max Headroom, he played him dressed in heavy latex make-up and a fiberglass suit. He was flesh and blood human, using analogue technology to play a digital character. There’s something about this layering that reminds me of our present situation: your social media handle is nothing but a prosthetic, you are still flesh and blood. The digital age is still also an age of bodily functions and bodily needs. As James pointed out earlier, Internet is cables and satellite hardware.

All of which is to say that is that a first response might be laughter, tears, debating with someone in person, punching them in the nose or giving them a great big kiss. Using new technology in your work does not make you a better artist nor a more interesting human being, and it’s OK if your first response is the last response. Know what to discard, and know what to preserve and protect. Thank you.

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