Reflecting on System Aesthetics

Francis Halsall
Systems Aesthetics and the System as Medium

In his essay Halsall set out to look at the ways in which a system can be conceived as an artistic medium. He discusses 3 main points: The historical perspective, the contemporary discursive perspective and the contemporary practice perspective. His argument is that the concept of system can be used as an effective heuristic tool that provides a coherency amongst these three perspectives.

In reading through the essay I found I was already conversant with the historical perspective he detailed, such as E.A.T [Experiments in Art and Technology], Billy Klüver’s collaboration with Robert Rauschenberg and the attempts to use new technology in transforming traditional object-based artistic practices into new, system-based ones. Not to forget the US military absorption of system analysis to create new techniques and styles of defence management.

But in reading, 2. Systems Aesthetics as a Retrospective Critical Discourse, I found exciting information about Rosaland Krauss’s theory of Dematerialisation which she called the Post Meium Condition. Krauss grounded her discussion in the specific historical role that the technological development of photography played in post-war artistic practice. In particular she focused on the convergence of art and photography in the 1960s. Photography, she argued with Benjamin, brought about a challenge to the unique status of art by challenging the status of the specific aesthetic object of art. In short Krauss argued that post-medium art required a jettisoning of a certain modernist understanding of medium.

Not wanting to completely dismiss the concept of medium she instead advocated a definition of medium as the “technical support” for the work of art. Krauss accepts the redundancy of the modernist medium, like oil on canvas, and welcomes the ambiguity and lack of medium specifity for new media art works. Her example is film: is the ‘support’ of film the celluloid strip, the screen, the splices of the edited footage, the projector’s beam of light, the circular reels?

It appears that in the 1960’s artists, like Krauss, were critiquing the notion of medium specificity. The systems aesthetic then provides the opportunity to encourage materially diverse practices (such as minimalism, conceptualism and new media art) within the single medium of system.

Reading the essay has reminded me to be less concerned with surface, material and medium in my practice, and instead like the minimalists and conceptual artists, concentrate more on process, aesthetic ‘rule’ making, and system.


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