What it Means to be a Provocateur of Imagination

Randall Packer, Secretary of the US Department of Art & Technology, performing during the 2004 Republican National Convention at the Freedom of Expression National Monument in downtown NYC, across the street from City Hall and the Court House.

“Painting isn’t an aesthetic operation; it’s a form of magic designed as a mediation between this strange hostile world and us, a way of seizing the power by giving form to our terrors as well as our desires.” – Pablo Picasso

There are strategies for mediating conflict that lie far outside the conventional realm of political mediation. What is little known is how artists engage in techniques of mediation, not by just bringing opposing sides to the table, but rather through the breakdown of the kind of rigid thinking that deepens blind misunderstandings in our relationship with an often “strange hostile world.”

As an artist, I view myself as a “provocateur of imagination,” creating projects that provoke and stir the imagination to break through the status quo. In my view, imagination – the activation of new perspective and insight – is the missing link in mediating hardened and polarized ideologies. To accomplish this, I have developed a palette of experimental mediational techniques derived through my interdisciplinary approach to the integration of art, performance, theory, research, activism, communications, and education.

Among these techniques, I would like to highlight the following: parody and satire; activist intervention; extreme forms of transparency and openness; the construction of virtual cosmologies and alternative worlds; performative enactments of situations and play; sensorial audio-visual immersion; participatory forms of decentralized communications; and creative dialogue in distributed networked space.

As I reflect on the past twenty years living and working in Washington, DC, I have had a front row seat on political turmoil unfolding during the post 9/11 era, an active environment for devising and testing mediational techniques. This first hand exposure has triggered such a degree of activism in my work, that out of necessity, I have gone well beyond even conventional notions of what is art. I now hesitate to even refer to myself as an artist given the broad scope of my work. Rather, its sum totality can be viewed as an over-arching investigation of meta-conflicts that probe a rapidly evolving world of social, political, cultural, and technological turmoil.

As a key tactic, I often embed myself within the dark recesses of problematic socio-political conditions – “giving form to these terrors” – to critically dissect the hidden dynamics of issues and their conflicts as viewed from the inside. These issues include the following: the impact of excessive “media ingestion” on patterns of individual behavior and social relations; the blurring of public and private in digital culture; the collapse of the real and the imaginary in the political environment; and Media disinformation exacerbated by centralized modes of corporatized broadcast communications.

The following sampling of projects created over the past twenty years reflect my approach to art and communications at the service of mediation:

(1) The Telematic Manifesto (1999-2000) was a pre-social media online environment for creative dialogue, exhibited at the ZKM Center for Art & Media in Karlsruhe Germany Net_Condition exhibition. The work was a collaboration with an international group of artists and technologists to articulate and document the changing paradigms of networked culture and its global significance at the turn of the millennium.

(2) The US Department of Art & Technology (2001-2010), was conceived as a virtual government agency as a response to the crisis of 9/11, with exhibitions, publications, and performances staged internationally. USDAT was intended to redefine the role of the artist as a mediator whose reflections, ideas, sensibilities, and abilities can take significant action on the world stage.

(3) The World Mediation Summit (2002) was staged as a ceremonial cultural exchange between the arts and government, held at the Goethe Institute in Washington DC. The work brought together artists, cultural attachés from local embassies, and US government officials to sign and deliver the faux legal document “Covenant of the Articles of Artistic Mediation” to the US Department of State.

(4) The Experimental Party Disinformation Center (2004) was an immersive media installation exhibited at the LUXE Gallery in New York City. The installation was intended to manipulate and counter the propaganda emanating from the Republican National Convention while the Bush Administration was exploiting the anniversary of 9/11 for political hype.

(5) Reportage from the Aesthetic Edge (2003 – present) is a personal online blog channel and database repository for documenting and distributing ideas, sketches, process, and the formulation of concepts into the public sphere: to be reshaped and molded into larger written works and projects.

(6) A Season in Hell (2005-2010) was a music theater production staged at the 2010 ZERO1 International Media Festival in San Jose, CA. The work integrated live vocal performance, cable news footage, African-American spirituals, photography, electronic music and video as an allegorical journey through a mythical Underworld of America, a Dantesque descent into the horrors and atrocities of the Bush Years.

(7) The Post Reality Show (2011-present) is a work-in-progress to be completed in 2020 in conjunction with the upcoming Presidential Election. This Internet-broadcasted audio-visual production is staged in my underground studio bunker in Washington, DC, a critique of the convergence of entertainment, reality television, celebrity hype, media consumption, politics and the resulting collapse of the real.

(8) Open Source Studio (2012-present) is an online teaching and research environment created at the California Institute of the Arts and Nanyang Technological University School of Art, Design and Media in Singapore. OSS is designed to document and host student work, providing virtual studio space that emphasizes sharing, process, and collective research in the study of media art and design.

(9) The Art of the Networked Practice (2015, 2018) was a series of two online Symposia, Webconferenced from Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. The events were open and inclusive, without registration fees, providing unusual access to an international group of attendees from more than 40 countries: a highly participatory gathering focused on emerging research, online live performance, Internet art, creative dialogue, and technological innovation in the networked arts.

(10) Third Space Network (2017-present) is an ambitious undertaking to re-envision the cable news network as an artist-driven activist platform, and as a virtual theatrical edifice for the staging of interviews, performances, and creative dialogue: emphasizing individual empowerment through the act of “becoming our own media.”

All of these projects carefully consider the importance of open access, transparency, dialogue and shared research, the very opposite notion of the individual artist creating work that constitutes a finished, closed system. To the contrary, my work is intended to be fluid, malleable, process-oriented, transformational: catalyzing agency and change. Ultimately my approach underscores the desire to focus the convergence of art and communications as an experimental mediational practice: art in service to social change and how we view our place in the world.

And so too the studio. I see the studio as an open studio made permeable via the Network, full of unrealized potentialities and possibilities, a mis-en-scene for constructing situations, building models, re-imagining institutional structures, a place for devising strategies for empowerment through connection and dialogue. The sum total of this field of possibilities is the utopian promise of COMMUNITY, however short it may fall – and failure is essential to experimentation – but rather how social change can be given new thrust in the expanded reach of the “third space,” the networked environment that connects people remotely to engage in shared, global communications and participatory dialogue.

There is no doubt that global networks open up new mediational strategies for illuminating and challenging conflict in a troubled world, enabling platforms that are accessible, inclusive, and open. I am working towards a realization of the Internet as a global “theater of imagination,” an alternative arena for bypassing anachronistic, staid, and sometimes destructive institutional systems and environments. In my world, the theater of the Network – whether it be for teaching, art, communications, or activism – has the potential of a new territory for activating connections and mediational transactions between people from all corners of the world.

I consider theater in the broad sense of the word as the ultimate space for the cathartic transformation of human consciousness through the provocation of imagination. And so it stands to reason, that the actions of mediating change can be thought of as an unlimited toolbox for the creation of wonderful impossibilities: transforming “that which can’t,” into “that which could be:” a determined hope for a better world.