“Expanding Systems Aesthetics” SLSA Conference, Houston, November 13, 2015

Expanding Systems Aesthetics: a three-session panel at the
Society for Literature, Science, and the Arts Annual Conference


Francis Halsall, Lecturer in the History and Theory of Modern & Contemporary Art, National College of Art and Design, Dublin

Johanna Gosse, Mellon Postdoctoral Teaching Fellow and Lecturer, Department of Art History & Archaeology, Columbia University

29th Annual Society for Literature, Science, and the Arts (SLSA) Conference Theme: “After Biopolitics”
November 12–15, Houston, TX

View final conference program here.

Within art history, the idea of “systems” is typically coupled with experimental artistic practices that utilize electronic and telecommunication systems and make reference to cybernetic theory. As a result, the notion of systems-art is often equated with work in so-called “new media,” from contemporary digital art to its major 1960s precedents–including movements and organizations such as E.A.T., Art & Technology, and so forth. This panel builds from last year’s SLSA panel, “Art as Open System since the 1960s,” (co-chaired by Christine Filippone and Johanna Gosse) to explore how systems aesthetics is both historically and conceptually broader and more complex than these established approaches have allowed. Taking the notion of “systems aesthetics” seriously, we argue, has profound implications for understanding art, medium, and the systems of their distribution and display. It means rethinking aesthetic practices in terms of systemic interactions. This has three key, implications: (1) reconfiguring conceptions of inter-subjectivity, participation, and “the social” through ideas of systems; (2) considering how the relation between art and its publics evolved both during and after modernism; (3) applying these insights to contemporary understandings of art, aesthetic experience and subjectivity.

There is increasing evidence that Jack Burnham’s 1968 claim that, “a Systems Esthetic [sic] will become the dominant approach to a maze of socio-technical conditions rooted only in the present,” is gaining currency. A number of recently curated exhibitions, research projects, and publications have taken systems as their primary focus for discussing art practices emerging after modernism; for instance, Edward Shanken’s Systems anthology (Whitechapel/ MIT Press, 2015) and Christine Filippone’s Science, Technology and Utopias in the Work of Contemporary Women Artists (forthcoming Ashgate, 2016).

These discussions on systems and art have tended to employ a particular perspective with three specific points of focus: (1) artists’ and curators’ use of emerging forms of advanced telecommunications and computing in the postwar period; (2) the application of cybernetic theory (e.g. Weiner) and 2nd order cybernetics (e.g. von Foerster; Bateson) in art discourse and practice; (3) the role of systems thinking within strategies of conceptualism and challenges to medium specificity at the end of the 1960s, the period Lucy Lippard famously referred to as “Six-Years: the dematerialization of the art object, 1966-1972.”

Taking these studies and approaches as both a foundation and a point of departure, this panel aims to expand the field of systems aesthetics by moving beyond its narrow application to a particular set of art experiments in the 1960s and their relationship to certain forms of technology and artistic mediums. This expanded approach to systems aesthetics, we argue, offers new theoretical coordinates for thinking about art and its relation to subjectivity and social relations. First, systems provides a framework for a reconfigured art historical narrative of modernism conceived of in terms of the systemic intertwining of mediums, technologies, and modes of perception. Second, this “systemic-turn” has contemporary relevance. Thinking about contemporary mediums, technologies, and modes of perception through and as systems can also tell us something of how life is lived (and art’s role in it) right now.

Our panel will also address how an aesthetics of systems can provide a key conceptual resource for the conference theme of biopolitics. It does so by thinking about how forms of life and thought are positioned within larger systems (natural, cultural, historical, technological). In short, systems provides a theoretical, cultural, social, and political “underpinning of the biopolitical paradigm.”

Confirmed speakers include:

  • Cristina Albu (University of Missouri, Kansas City) on the rise of social complexity in contemporary art;
  • Kris Cohen (Reed College) on systems aesthetics and representing racial difference in the work of Charles Gaines;
  • Jaimey Hamilton Faris (University of Hawai’i, Mānoa.) on contemporary art’s engagement with containerization, global shipping, and transit systems;
  • Christine Filippone (Millersville University), scholar of systems theory and feminist art practices, serving as respondent to Panel II;
  • Erica Levin (Ohio State University) on Stan VanDerBeek’s Violence Sonata (1970), public television broadcasting, and systems of biopolitical control;
  • Mike Maizels (Wellesley College) on William Copley’s M.S. Portfolio (1968) and alternatives to the gallery system
  • Dawna Schuld (Texas A&M University) on the landmark California “Light and Space” exhibition at Tate in 1970 and the systems of institutional critique;
  • Tim Stott (Dublin Institute of Technology) on Jasia Reichardt’s 1969 exhibition Play Orbit and the cybernetics of participation;
  • John Alistair Tyson (National Gallery of Art) on Hans Haacke’s use of weather systems as a metaphor for radical political action;
  • Lane Relyea (Northwestern University) on the impact of localized systems of education, exhibition, and exchange in “everyday art worlds”;
  • Judith Rodenbeck (University of California, Riverside) on anthropological approaches to affect and gesture in contemporary practice.