[The] cultural obsession with the art object is slowly disappearing and being replaced by what might be called ‘systems consciousness.’
Jack Burnham

Today, with the rise of internet art, generative art and on-chain art the relationship between art and technology has revolutionised artistic practice to an unprecedented degree. Art is no longer solely being made by traditional materials like paint or marble. Code is now a dominant medium uniquely adept at capturing the intricacies of our current global information society. Gone are the days in which museum and galleries were the sole custodians of exhibition spaces. Art can now exist and be collected on our phones and be eternally suspended and safeguarded in a blockchain. With the landscape of art so radically altered, we should ask: what critical frameworks are suited to examine this art? What are the histories that inform such practices?

To answer these questions, we should examine the fascination with systems that characterised the legacy of conceptualism and minimalism. What does it mean to talk about systems in an art context? Leading conceptual artist Hans Haacke once described a system as:

[…]a grouping of elements subject to a common plan and purpose. These elements or components interact so as to arrive at a joint goal. To separate the elements would be to destroy the system. The term was originally used in the natural sciences for understanding the behaviour of physically interdependent processes. It explained phenomena of directional change, recycling and equilibrium.

Hans Haacke, MoMA Poll (1970)

At first glance, talking about systems in relation to art seems antithetical to the creative process that underpins artistic practice. To operate within a system automatically means a loss of freedom. Systems are bound by a certain logic conditioned by hierarchy or, in the words of Haacke, ‘directional change.’ They set parameters and exert control; they often wear the stale cloak of predictability. Systems seem to be the graveyard of the dictum of l’art pour l’art. Indeed, to think about systems in this context seems to go against the very essence of the romantic role of the artist. There is a firmly established vision of an artist as a rule breaker constantly striving to escape bright- eyed and bushy tailed from underneath the asphyxiating pillow of bureaucracy and convention. Art is meant to be autonomous and free from the murky and self-serving waters of global capitalism and commercialised mass culture.

But to claim that art is a type of liberated work that exists outside of capital and the systems that constitute it is pure fantasy. It is also a fantasy that, as aesthetically meritorious as it may be, naively forgets that it also operates within a system that can easily clip the wings of art and side-line it into a narrow, poorly lit and suffocating corner of cultural discourse. Confined here, artists cannot comment and participate critically on the systems around them or the ones that affect their work and creative process.

During the 1960s and 1970s, with the advent of minimalism and conceptualism, this realisation planted the seeds of change in artistic practice. Artists and critics began to think of art as being part of a system capable of creating subversive systems of their own in order to actively participate in current political, aesthetic and cultural preoccupations. In 1968 art critic Jack Burnham wrote his seminal article ‘System Esthetics’ for Artforum in which he wrote about a new system- based paradigm which could be used to comprehend the aesthetic logic of his time as exhibited by figures such as Carl Andre, Donald Judd, Robert Morris and Hans Haacke. Systems became a useful theoretical and conceptual tool by which to understand works that were preoccupied with seriality, algorithms, structure, organisation, modularity and categorisation. There emerged a ‘system aesthetic’ as promoted with the launch of the exhibition Systems at the Whitechapel Gallery in London in 1972 that looked at the relationship between abstract art and systems.

This bourgeoning interest was driven by three dominant factors. To begin with, there was an aesthetic moulded by the logic of conceptualism and minimalism that toppled craftmanship from the pedestal it once firmly held in the art world. It also stripped art from its objecthood. Art could now exist as a set of propositions detailed in documents and sets of instructions. Take, for instance, Sol LeWitt’s Wall Drawings (1969-2007), an early example of how an algorithmic process can produce mesmerising visual outcomes. To own one of these works by Sol LeWitt means to possess a certificate, a diagram and a letter with a set of instruction that can be executed by different individuals in numerous places so long as it is done so faithfully.

Then, there were pervasive anti-establishment sentiments during the 1960s brewed during a time of civil rights marches, student riots and political assassinations in the United States. A general dissatisfaction with ‘The System’ gave birth to a powerful counterculture. Artists wanted to actively take part in the ‘real world.’ They were deeply concerned by how information was being used coercively by systems of power. This led to the exhibition Information, curated by Kynaston McShine at the MoMA in 1970, where Hans Haacke collected statistical information by asking visitors to vote on an issue linked to MoMA’s sources of funding and political connections. Haacke counted the votes using a photoelectric counting device and displayed the results in the gallery. With this gesture, statistical information entered the vocabulary of art practice.

Lastly, there was a general attention directed at the crossroads of technological systems and art that engendered groups such as E.A.T (Experiments in Art and Technology) established by artist Robert Rauschenberg and Bell Labs engineer Billy Klüver. It was also during this time that British artist Harold Cohen began to investigate the ability of computers to generate art and in 1973 came up with Aaron, a computer system capable of making drawings. At the same time, artists and critics started drawing parallels between the procedural structures of computer systems and the working processes of artists leading pioneer of digital art Manfred Mohr to proclaim in 1971 that ‘creative work is an algorithm.’

Harold Cohen, Drawing (1974)

This preoccupation with systems, technology and art resurfaced with renewed vitality in the 1990s thanks to the advances in computational science and widespread use of the internet. Today, this drive for forward movement has only gained more momentum that gives no sign of capitulating to anti-technological naysayers. We live in a world progressively constructed by systems propelled by an algorithmic logic forged in the crucible of technological innovation. The complexity and ubiquity of such systems means that not only are they exponentially more powerful and open up previously unimaginable potentials, but they also operate in ever more manipulative and inscrutable ways. Their ability to accumulate information on us and organise it in a way that allows them to accurately predict and effectively manoeuvre our patterns of behaviour as both consumers and citizens is alarming at best.

The artistic community has engaged with this new reality by interrogating and productively exploring the nature of these systems in aesthetic and socially participative ways. Art can help us construct visual regimes and theoretical paradigms to prepare us for the unique challenges and opportunities of our new technological reality. Examples abound. In Behold These Glorious Times! (2017), artist Trevor Paglen examines the invisible forces of technology and the way they produce knowledge by looking at the photographic libraries that are used to train A.I. systems to automate human emotion. In Paglen’s more recent interactive NFT series PRELUDES, he employs blockchain technology and the fundamentals of cryptography to create visual manifestations of musical compositions that hide secrets to be decoded by collectors. Other artists have conjured up new aesthetic sensibilities like Jennifer and Kevin McCoy who, for their first NFT collection, Land Sea Sky reimagined the American landscape with the use of an A.I. image generator. Hacking has now become an effective and widely accepted artistic gesture. Equipped with a degree in Information Systems, Gretchen Andrews hacks ‘systems of power with art, glitter, and code.’ For the last U.S. presidential election, she manipulated Google image search so when someone entered ‘the next American president’ her seemingly incongruous collages styled as vision boards would be the first to show up.

This new type of technologically armed artistic production fits the needs of today. To do justice to such artistic production, we need to develop theoretical models that are fit for purpose. This is why reengaging with the concept of systems seems particularly felicitous. Systems theory can help us reframe the vocabulary by which we understand art’s place in society and the role of technology in shaping it. It allows us to move away from the restrictive obsession with the singular art object towards a more wholesome understanding of art, one that accepts that art is part of a system existing within other systems of power.

Gretchen Andrew, The Next American President (red) (2020)

Paula Brailovsky is a London-based art historian who finished her master’s degree at the Courtauld Institute of Art and then went on to complete her PhD at University College London in 2014. Entitled Geographies of Violence: Site-Oriented Art and Politics at the Mexico-U.S. Border From the 1980s to the Present, her dissertation centred on the intersection between art and politics in relation to nationhood, identity and the conditions of globalisation. As an academic, she has published her work in the journal Object and MIRAJ, has taught modern and contemporary art courses both at graduate and postgraduate level and has lectured nationally and internationally.  In recent years, she has worked as a researcher and writer in an art consultancy where she built an academic programme and helped individuals and institutions navigate the complex waters of contemporary art and its markets. Using her academic background as a springboard, she is interested in the practical possibilities and theoretical potentials that exist at the crossroads of contemporary art, business and technology.