Alain Kessi

Art, elites and technologies

Communication Front is about art and technologies, about how artists can make use of new technologies to open up new possibilities in their work, about how communication technologies can help us break out of geographical isolation - imposed by visa regimes like Schengen and by financial dependency on funding from abroad - by spanning across continents networks of people with common interests. Communication front is also about how those technologies influence the relations between people in and from East and West, and how these relations take shape within the communication structures based on said technologies.

When reflecting on art and new technologies, a key notion seems to be that of elites. There have been many traditions in the history of art that referred in one way or another to their being part of an elite, an avant-guarde, more perceptive of developments and chances, more apt to show a way forward than others. Extreme examples may be the futurists, or the expressionists. At the same time, perhaps because of the perception of the state socialist regime until 1989 as levelling down and hindering any effort, any search outside of a prescribed ordinary, there is a tendency in Bulgaria, even outside the field of art, for people to count themselves as part of an elite, to see themselves as different from the herd, as standing out from a majority of common people who are seen and described as simple-minded, uneducated, relicts without a future.

This elitism, whether in art or in Bulgaria or both, often comes hand in hand with contempt towards people who live in less industrialized conditions, who are less included in the modern world, less familiar with modern technologies. A frequently used derogatory word in Bulgarian is "selianin", which means peasant or villager. The relation between the city, Sofia, connected to the world, and the countryside, with an altogether different time regime, is ambiguous. Few people in Sofia, including net artists, are completely cut off from some sort of roots outside the city, and many could hardly survive without the sacks of potatoes and carots and the occasional piece of meat they receive from their relatives who work a patch of land in the countryside, who look after a sheep or two, a pig and a dozen chicken. And often, you will hear someone living in Sofia tell you that if you know only Sofia, if you haven't been to the countryside, if you haven't seen how people live there, you don't know anything about Bulgaria. And nevertheless, often, this notion that city life, modern life, is better than village life. Not only in the sense that city life might be easier or in certain ways more attractive, but also in the sense that people who have chosen village life, or who have had no chance to escape from it, are "seliani", mere villagers, simple-minded peasants.

Art, as a reflection on social developments, should always reflect on its own tools, and on its own effect within the dynamic of social relations. When we discuss art and technologies, we need to look at who benefits from new technologies, and who is endangered by them. The fifty-five year old woman who has been doing the bookkeeping of a small company for the past fifteen years by hand - what happens to her when her boss puts a computer in front of her, expecting her to switch to electronic bookkeeping? Maybe she'll learn, read the f*** manuals, acquire the knowledge needed and continue working to her boss's satisfaction. And maybe she will not learn, will not understand why she should switch to using a computer, since doing the bookkeeping by hand has worked fine for so many years. Maybe she'll find computers so foreign to her thinking that she will not manage. Maybe she'll find herself, ten years before retirement, with solid skills in bookkeeping but no chance to find a job.

New technologies, besides offering new possibilities to those who acquire the new skills required, always also have the effect of devaluating the knowledge of people familiar with older technologies, of making such knowledge obsolete. By selecting between those who are willing and able to adapt to the new requirements and those who refuse or are unable to follow suit, new technologies are an elite-building tool. By creating a pressure to adapt, they leave certain people behind as "useless" on the garbage dump of history while giving others a chance to secure themselves a relative position of power within an innovative elite.

When artists use new technologies, they not only constitute themselves as part of an innovative elite. If they do not actively subvert their medium, they legitimize the mechanisms of elite-making, the innovations which render other people obsolete in their knowledge and skills. In their enthusiasm for the new medium - and there's no doubt that new media are prone to arouse curiosity and enthusiasm - artists are likely to make the power relations behind the medium invisible. I see it as a central task of artists to attempt to resist participating in stabilizing and perpetuating power structures and to find ways of visualizing and representing the power relations inherent in the medium they use.

In terms of East-West relations, it seems to me that Bulgarian or other Eastern European artists have a certain advantage over their Western colleagues in detecting and identifying the power relations hidden behind the great new technologies, since they are likely to be more sensitive to power biases between Western countries and Eastern Europe, which are to a large extent based on differences in access to and control over new technologies. The brain drain that sucks off Bulgarian innovative elites into positions at Western universities, research and development laboratories or - more temporarily - exhibition halls, is a direct consequence of the way technologies structure the chances for success (as well as the notions of what success means) according to the access to those technologies, and of the way the geographical distribution of this access reflects power relations of international politics.

Communication Front seems like the ideal environment for discussing in-depth the ways that technologies shape social relations, including those between East and West, and to work on developing ways of representing these processes and making hidden power structures evident. Communication Front can become a place where "seliani" and net afficionados can discuss how they want to live and how new technologies might be approached in order to enable each to choose how they want to live, without delegitimizing the other's choices or realities.

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