Security Aesthetic = Systems Panic
Where does security end, and insecurity begin? Systems analysts recognize this as a classic boundary question. Its answer determines the precise deployment of any security system. But as we shall see, this particular boundary question cannot be answered under present conditions, except through the definition of a second system, a specifically interrogatory one. Drawing on the definition of an American art critic of the 1960s, I’ll call this second kind of bounded entity an “aesthetic system.”
First we should consider how security systems are installed in reality. Attention is focused on every point where an environment, conceived as “secure,” comes into contact with its outer edges. Typically, these edges of the system are doors, windows, property lines, borders, coasts, air-space – every place of ingress or egress. At each of these edges, a catalogue of known and present dangers is established. An analysis is conducted to determine the most effective responses to these dangers; and locks, barriers, fences, warning devices, surveillance personnel, armed guards, etc. are positioned at the system’s boundaries to repel the threat. Further efforts are expended to look into the crystal ball of the future, predicting all those points where new threats could call for the definition of new boundaries. More matériel and personnel can then be deployed, or at least, readied for deployment. The security system expands dynamically, continually adjusting its relations to the outside world, continually redefining its own boundaries as a system.
One can easily imagine how a home, an airport or a harbour can be made “secure.” An initial, safe or “quiet” inside space must simply be preserved from outer harm. But what happens in a complex social system, one composed of many different actors, some with irreconcilably diverging interests? In other words, what happens in an environment where threats can arise from within? The response is clear: what happens is deep paranoia.
The problem of the system’s edges suddenly multiplies: the boundary to be secured is now the entire volume of the system, its width, its breadth, its depth, and most damnedly of of all, its human potential for change in the future. The resulting proliferation of eyes, ears, cameras, snooping devices, data banks, cross-checks and spiraling analytical anxiety in the face of every conceivable contingency is what defines the present security panic. Yet there is a further complication, which merits our attention, particularly in what is called a democracy. This is the fact that security measures, in the face of an internal enemy, come very rapidly to be shrouded in a veil of secrecy. This is not only to preserve their immediate effectiveness, though that is, of course, an issue. But secrecy, from the viewpoint of the security system, is also required to keep the initial security measures from backfiring and actually increasing insecurity.
For what if innocent but marginalized social groups knew the extent to which they are being spied on? Would they not then feel further alienation, and maybe even defect to the side of the enemy? And what if mainstream citizens themselves had to be surveilled, for fear that a violent anomaly might be lurking somewhere in an average profile? If they knew they were being spied on, wouldn’t these honest citizens become angered, and demand an end to the proliferation of security measures? Doesn’t opinion control then become necessary too? And how about cultural censorship? Where does security end, and insecurity begin?
As you can see from the world around us, any security system is destined under stress to become an entity of uncertain contours, a veritable black hole in society, extending its cloak of invisibility to the exact extent that its internal paranoia deepens; and at the same time generating an external paranoia about its operations that can only translate into a redoubling of its initial drive to stealth and invisibility. Under these conditions, what becomes necessary for the maintenance of a democracy is a specific kind of social system, whose probing and questioning can provide some renewed transparency. This is where art criticism used to have great ideas.
Writing in 1968, Jack Burnham predicted the coming demise of the traditional art object, and with it, of the figure of the artist as Homo faber, or man the maker. In their place would arise the “aesthetic system” shaped by Homo arbiter formae, man the decider of forms. The essential reasons for this shift were technological and organizational: in an age of ever-more complex and powerful information machines, constructed by ever-more sophisticated and extensive organizations, an art that retained the simple posture of manufacture, or hand-making, would inevitably be condemned to lose all relevance in the world. Yet this declining relevance could be countered if the artist rose to the challenges of the contemporary process of production. As Burnham wrote:
“The systems approach goes beyond a concern with staged environments and happenings; it deals in a revolutionary fashion with the larger problem of boundary concepts… Conceptual focus rather than material limits define the system. Thus any situation, either in or outside the context of art, may be designed and judged as a system… In evaluating systems, the artist is a perspectivist considering goals, boundaries, structure, input, output, and related activity inside and outside the system. Where the object almost always has a fixed shape and boundaries, the consistency of a system may be altered in time and space, its behavior determined both by external conditions and its mechanisms of control.”1
Burnham’s ideas were far ahead of his time. In the 1960s, what he mainly had before his eyes were sculptural environments, or what we now call installations: relatively simple systems of interaction with the public, which no longer appeared as art objects, but rather as heterogeneous assemblages of parts, some of which might break down and could then be replaced without in any way damaging the originality or authenticity of the system. Hans Haacke’s early sculptures were the classic examples – and that was already a revolution. What we have seen emerging in the art of our time, however, particularly since computerized communications technology became widely available in the 1990s, are subtly aestheticized versions of complex socio-technical systems: networks of actors, equipment, physical sites and virtual spaces allowing for the orchestration of highly diverse activities. In this context of spiraling interaction, the most important artistic decisions are the ones that shape the systemic boundary, lending the system its degrees of recognizability and irrecognizability, and thus, its potential for symbolic agency. As Burnham remarks, the systems artist “operates as a quasi-political provocateur, though in no concrete sense is he an ideologist or a moralist.”
How then does a democratic systems aesthetic come into play, in the face of security panic with its inherent tendencies toward invisibility, concealed intentions, censorship and even aggression? What we have is the paradoxical, yet also paradigmatic case where one systemic boundary can only be identified by determining another. What this means is that an aesthetic system must be constituted as a fully operational reality, an alliance or network, which can probe the contours of the secret, dissimulating system, and at the same time, reveal those hidden outlines mimetically, through its own outer forms, its own vocabularies and images, its characteristic modes of appearance and communication. What you get then, in art, are elaborate fakes, doppelgangers, double agents, fictional entities that strive to produce outbreaks of truth at their points of contact with the hidden system. What you get, in other words, are counter-models, the virtual outlines of rival systems. This is the principle of some of the most advanced art of our day. Jack Burnham understood it in 1968. But there’s just one problem: later generations of critics did not read him.2
While security systems proliferate, and while strategic reality hackers devise complex and sardonic lures to ferret them out and render them visible, the majority of cultural specialists remain blind to the entire predicament and go on blithering about the tragedies of great painting or the modest pleasures of relational art. Yet there are other things under the sun, even if they are not always easy to see. An urgent task of cultural critique in the age of security panic is to help create space in democratic societies for the necessary fictions, feints, satires, double-identities and organizational shadow-boxing of aesthetic systems.
1Jack Burnham, “Systems Esthetics,” in Artforum (September 1968). Online at: http://www.volweb.cz/horvitz/burnham/systems-esthetics.html
2Of course there are historicist readings, like Luke Skrebowski‘s “All Systems Go: Recovering Jack Burnham’s ‘Systems Aesthetics’” in Tate Papers 5 (Spring 2006), online at: http://www.tate.org.uk/research/tateresearch/tatepapers/06spring/skrebowski.htm. Too bad they remain on the safe terrain of art history.