Mapping The Post-Material World

Welcome to Ephemeral Objects, a new blog exploring the idea of art criticism for the post-material world. If it sounds a bit abstract, that’s because it is.  At this point I’ve got a series of ideas and intuitions, juxtapositions and speculations that I will (hopefully!) weave together into a coherent theoretical basis for a new form of critical practice. In short: this project is about developing interpretive systems for the digital age and modeling a concomitant process of critical investigation.

This project would not be possible without the generous support of The Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant.

For those of you who don’t know me, my name is Andy Horwitz and I’m a critic and curator living in NYC. I’m the founder of and you can read about me there or on my personal site,  I’ve been on the Internet a long time, was waiting for it a long time before that, and am endlessly fascinated and perplexed by its possibilities and complications.

The idea for Ephemeral Objects as a discrete project emerged through the interweaving of various strands of inquiry.

I was attending a dance platform in Minneapolis and started to obsess about dance notation and scores. While some choreographers use Laban notation, most use unique and idiosyncratic written scores of their own devising, most handwritten and many of them quite beautiful as art objects unto themselves. I started wondering about the relationship between the imagination of the choreographer, the score as text-based prompt for embodied  performance and the way that the dance, once performed, exists only in memory. How does this written prompt – particularly an idiosyncratic text-based notation system –  operate for the choreographer and to convey meaning and action to the dancers responsible for incarnating the ephemeral? And when this score becomes detached from its immediate utility, what does it mean, how can it be reinterpreted and how can it serve the same function for a different group of dancers while holding the possibility for wildly different outcomes? How does dance – an embodied practice with an oral history tradition – exist in memory over time?

Not long after I attended a composer’s portrait of Olga Neuwirth at the Miller Theater where The International Contemporary Ensemble performed “…ce qui arrive…” – a remarkably complex piece for voice, video, tape and ensemble. I was accompanying my colleague George Grella who, as a music critic, had been given a copy of the score. Looking at the score before the concert began I asked him if he, by reading the score, could anticipate what the music would sound like. He said that he could, somewhat, but that it was a very complicated score.

After listening to the piece, and reading the score over George’s shoulder, I was astonished that anybody could make sense of this score and somehow bring it to life, with all these musicians, technology and moving parts. I was even more amazed when George pointed out that the conductor of an orchestra or ensemble not only has to hear the whole thing in his or her head, but must always be a few seconds – as many as ten, perhaps – ahead of the musicians so as to guide them through the piece and sculpt the sound in a series of precisely time cues and actions.

After the concert I started thinking about how dance scores, music scores and play scripts are related, they are all text-based prompts for the incarnation of ephemeral performances. Scores are more complicated than they seem. They have a certain amount of precision inherent in the textual structures and languages they employ, at the same time, unlike mathematics (insofar as I understand it) there is significant room for interpretation. Scores and scripts contain almost infinite possibilities for various interpretations, from overall concept to the particulars of execution.

At roughly the same time I attended a symposium on dance in the museum where a curator said that she was fascinated by dance in that it encouraged her to re-think the exhibition in the post-object world. I found this statement fantastically problematic for many reasons, not least of which is that we are not, by any means, in a post-object world. I immediately thought of object-oriented programming, social objects and the notion of the “performance object”.

That’s when I started trying to identify how these seemingly disparate ideas intersect, how do we find likeness as opposed to difference?

When we consider code as a language, we come to realize that it serves a similar function to any other kind of script or score – it prompts behavior in a system, most often in linear time-based sequences. At the same time “object oriented programming” suggests that those behaviors are attached to objects, and “objects” can be comprised of multiple smaller objects, each being activated and deactivated according to a series of scripted operations, each action in relation to another object or action, in conditional hierarchies and dynamic networks.

In this way, we can take the disparate elements of performance – space, time, light, sound, built sets, text, performers – and imagine them as “objects” that may or may not take material form, that have certain properties, that serve as loci for concepts and ideas and, like computer programs, operate in a specific way in relation to each other over time, based on the code built from text based prompts.

More than a mere intellectual exercise, I believe that mapping the conceptual systems of the digital age onto our current systems of interpreting and engaging with performed art is essential to understanding our world.

Until recently the human being’s experience of the world was primarily material, though an unseen layer of non-material operations was widely assumed and explored through the study of philosophy, physics and metaphysics. Art created from, and existing as, material objects has been a dominant form of creative expression throughout history, with even performing arts largely predicated on interpreting the human experience of the material world.

However, as society has moved from the push delivery systems of mass media to the immersive, interactive worlds of ubiquitous social media, our experience of the world is increasingly predicated on infinite unseen digital operations. The computing languages that allow these digital operations are most frequently written according to the principles of “object oriented programming” – a programming paradigm that represents concepts as “objects“. Recently years have seen the advent of the term “performance object” to refer to certain complex works of time-based art, and the idea of the “social object” has taken on wide significance.

The current critical discourse in both visual and performing arts is insufficient to engage with the complexities of art making in the post-material world. If we are to begin to create aesthetic and evaluative criteria for this work, we need to develop a language to speak about it. This language must bridge the academic and the popular to provide a wider platform for documentation and dissemination of artists’ creative research and discovery.  And if we can begin to bridge this gap in the art world, perhaps we can develop more sophisticated languages for discourse across disciplines in the wider culture.

Maybe it will be possible to identify intersections between the language of post-material art criticism and the languages of science and economics, leading to new understandings and collaborations. I hope that by articulating these questions and beginning to develop and disseminate these ideas, I will discover others pursuing this line of inquiry with the possibility of developing an ongoing community of practice.

I have been writing extensively about the artistic and critical implications of the digital age for some time. From my theory of “critical horizontalism” to framing creative process as investigation and the artist’s work as iterative development, I am obsessed with learning to see art in a new way. My passion for new aesthetics in all forms always leads me back to this question of how to apprehend the ephemeral and non-material.

Over the course of the next year (and beyond) I hope to explore the following, among many other things:

  • Interviews with artists creating complex work and new dramaturgical approaches
  • Interviews with performance technologists, technicians and designers
  • What are the existing technologies for operating time based performances and what is the future?
  • What would an integrated score look like for a truly interdisciplinary time-based performance?
  • Interviews with pioneering programmers and creators of programming languages
  • What is an object?
  • What is ephemerality?
  • How does an ephemeral object work?
  • What is the nature of experience?
  • What are the operations of experience?
  • Code as a language, writing code as an art form.
  • What is the Phenomenology of performed art?
  • What are the neurobiological underpinnings of the phenomenological and how can these ideas be integrated into the conversation?