Artist as Network: Out of time and into space with The Warhol:Timeweb

Miriam Kienle

Visiting Assistant Professor, DePauw University

In its simplest but also in its deepest sense, the notion of network is of use whenever action is to be redistributed. – Bruno Latour [1]

Because networks prioritize intersectionality, multiplicity, and process-orientation, theorists such as Bruno Latour often look to them for help in visualizing the redistribution of fixed categories and vertical histories, including canonical accounts of art history. Yet their apparent horizontality can obscure the hierarchical power-dynamics embedded within the systems they track. By examining The Andy Warhol Museum’s Timeweb project (2014), I aim to analyze the values inscribed within the shift from linear timeline to spatial timeweb as a museological system of display. [2]

Networked Space

Indicative of the “spatial turn” in art history, The Warhol: Timeweb is one of numerous network visualizations developed by curators in the past decade to transform linear narratives of 20th century art into dynamic, networked systems. [3] When entering this interactive online resource, one finds many ways to engage with the site. On the Timeweb’s homepage, a group of “Warhol nodes” (i.e. roughly fifty “key artworks, people, places, and events from throughout his life”) hover in clusters above a zoomable timeline. [4]

Screenshot from The Warhol :Timeweb. http://warhol.gradientlabs.com on Last accessed September 15, 2014.

Screenshot from The Warhol :Timeweb. http://warhol.gradientlabs.com on Last accessed September 15, 2014.

These nodes loosely correspond to the space on the timeline above which they float, and they come forward or recede back as the cursor runs across them. If one clicks on a discrete node, it opens up to a web of connections between Warhol and various socio-cultural events of his lifetime from across the globe. Clicking on a little known Warhol work called Invisible Sculpture (1985), for example, the user finds links to nodes labeled “The Year of the Spy, 1985,” “Gorbachev and Glasnost, 1985-86,” and “The Politic Visible” that features Geraldine Ferraro campaigning in 1984 to be the first female president. Diving in at random, one may jump from the TV show Good Morning America, to Nancy Reagan’s War on Drugs, to the musician Jim Morrison, to Cabbage Patch Dolls and B-2 Bombers. Anchoring this dizzying array of information is Warhol–the network’s hub.

Screenshot from The Warhol :Timeweb. Accessed at http://warhol.gradientlabs.com on September 15, 2014.

Screenshot from The Warhol :Timeweb. Accessed at http://warhol.gradientlabs.com on September 15, 2014.

The presence and hand of the museum’s Education Department is made clear through several authorial and editorial decisions. A number of categories code each node: “Cultural Context,” “Product,” “Ideas & Trends,” “Influence & Legacy,” as well as the more elusively labeled groupings like “In” and “Out” (Geraldine Ferraro, for example, is labeled “In,” which is connected to node on the AIDS activist collective ACT UP labeled “Out”). Many of the items selected for inclusion in the “timeweb” turn the visitor’s focus toward the understudied decades of Warhol’s career –the 1970s and 1980s. Furthermore, while the vast majority of trends, events, and objects networked through the Timeweb are from American culture, two final categories labeled “Russia” and “Latin America” include content from other geographical contexts, however tangentially related to Warhol. The selection of these spaces at first seems peculiar (particularly as they are marked by their national and regional status, while the US events are left unmarked), until one learns from the website’s “background” page that this “select global context material” was integrated into the site in connection with the museum’s traveling exhibitions to Russia (2005-06) and Latin America (2009-10); the museum plans for additional cultures to be added overtime. [5] Expanding the scope of scholarship on Warhol into emerging markets and more recent time periods, the Timeweb endeavors to ensure Warhol’s currency in the contemporary art world—an objective underpinning its networked structure and circumscribing its role as an experimental research tool.

The expressed aims of The Warhol: Timeweb are both to create an “engaging, informative, and user-friendly web experience” and to “stimulate new scholarship.” [6] Elaborating on this point, The Warhol team quotes art historian Terry Smith:

“[P]lacemaking, world picturing and connectivity,” are key concerns of contemporary art and […] “tracing the currency of each artwork within the larger forces that are shaping this present is the task of contemporary art history.” Staring this process requires mapping connections, unearthing details, and testing ideas. As such, the Timeweb is more an investigative experiment than scholarly text, doomed like all timelines to the certainty of oversight. [7]

Amidst all this connectivity, one might ask: What kind of place is being made? What world pictured, unearthed, tested? And what are the constitutive forces shaping it? As a timeweb rather than timeline, the nature of their anticipated oversight stems from condition of the contemporary that forms overall structure of the site, or what Smith himself pinpoints as “globalization.” [8]

Out of Time

Critics such as Manuel Castells have described globalization in terms of an increased emphasis of spatial logics over temporal ones. As Castells explores in his writing on the “network society,” the terrain of globalization–dominated by the homogenizing forces of informational flows that are controlled by a globally connected elite–have caused us to move out of time and into space. [9] With instantaneous communication, duration appears to collapse and distance becomes abolished. Freeing social connection from the constraints of specific places and times, digital technologies allow for the concrete time of localities–bound to particular modes of duration–to be absorbed into the imperium of a totalizing global space with the click of one’s mouse. [10] Stimulating, disorienting, and oppressive, the result of living within the network society bears much similarity to what Fredric Jameson describes as “hyperspace” or the bewildering architecture of the “postmodern condition.” [11]

Hyperspace, much like the space produced by The Warhol: Timeweb, engenders a sense of fluid movement between free-floating yet interconnected fragments. Navigating the site, one finds it difficult to measure the distance between here and there—between Warhol and the events, people, places, and things to which he is being connected. Inside and outside blur, as degrees of separation between nodes become indistinguishable.

Screenshot from The Warhol :Timeweb. http://warhol.gradientlabs.com on Last accessed on September 15, 2014.

Screenshot from The Warhol :Timeweb. http://warhol.gradientlabs.com on Last accessed on September 15, 2014.

Pulling back for a moment, one asks: Do the various nodes linked to Warhol’s Camouflage (1986) – including AIDS activism, the Statue of Liberty, American films about Vietnam, the ethno-national conflicts in the Soviet territories, and the Central American civil wars of the 1980s, among others–all exert the same pull on Warhol’s work or on each other? Much like hyperspace, the Timeweb gives the appearance of being a total system in which anything and everything is connected, while displacing perspective with surface. The project’s underlying architecture of pre-set selections restricts its potential for uncovering, mapping, and testing new histories. These borders and restrictions, however, become obscured by the sensation of boundless connectivity.

Interestingly, over a dozen of the nodes in the Timeweb derive from another on-going project at The Warhol that by contrast does involve such experiential unearthing—the cataloguing of the Warhol’s Time Capsules. Amassed from 1960s until his death in 1987, these serially accumulated boxes contain a surprising array of flotsam and jetsam from the artist’s daily life. [12] Putting item after item into containers (usually plain standardized cardboard boxes) until each box was full, Warhol would seal up the contents, date or title the box, and send it off to storage. In the end, he accumulated 610 boxes filled with correspondence, photographs, newspapers, magazines, catalogues, and invitations, as well as more peculiar items like dead bees; nail clippings, and old underwear. These boxes—filled with all kinds of confounding detail—allow researchers the ability to make contact with the past, while marking their distance from it. The patterns that emerge from the bottom-up process of cataloguing the chaotic contents of each box into a searchable database will undoubtedly provide new fodder for future scholarship. Speaking to Warhol’s own emphatic assertion of the value of duration, these boxes mark a place in time with a specificity and locality that escapes the Timeweb.

 

References

  1. Bruno Latour, “Networks, Societies, Spheres: Reflections of an Actor-Network Theorist,” International Journal of Communication 5 (2011): 797.
  2. The Warhol: Timeweb was developed by the museum’s Education Department, guided by Tresa Varner and Jessica Grogan. Gradient labs designed the software platform and a scholarly review committee drawn largely from the faculty at University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University advised the content. Developed between 2006 and 2013, the project was officially launched in May 2014 as part of The Warhol’s 20th anniversary. See: http://warhol.gradientlabs.com/#/info Last accessed September 15, 2014.
  3. In a recent article in Artl@s (a publication dedicated to exploring the “spatial turn” in art history), Daniel Quiles analyzes Héctor Olea and Mari Carmen Ramírez’s exhibition Heterotopías: Medio siglo sin-lugar, 1918-1968 (2000-01) that pioneered the networked curatorial model, ultimately allowing for a “paradoxical rejection and reinforcement of Latin American art’s peripheral status, rendering the region simultaneously a bounded locality where new ideas emerge and a set of nodes in a global art ecology.” Subsequent utilizations of the “constellation” logic of Heterotopias has varied from MoMA’s blockbuster exhibit Inventing Abstraction [2012-13], which re-inscribed a canonical set of artists of European modernism as a dynamic social network, to Red Conceptualismos del Sur’s Perder la forma humana [2012- 2014], which stressed how networked structures can expand aesthetic practice beyond the confines of art and into the realm of political action. See: Daniel R. Quiles, “Exhibition as Network, Network as Curator: Canonizing Art from “Latin America,” Artl@s Bulletin 3, no. 1 (2014): 63, 72-74.
  4. Quote regarding categories of Warhol hubs can be found on The Warhol: Timeweb homepage, accessed September 15, 2014, http://warhol.gradientlabs.com/#/
  5. See the “background” page on The Warhol:Timeweb site, accessed September 15, 2014, http://warhol.gradientlabs.com/#/info.
  6. Quotation from the “about” page on The Warhol:Timeweb site, accessed September 15, 2014, http://warhol.gradientlabs.com/#/info.
  7. Ibid.
  8. While “Globalization” is one node with in The Warhol: Timeweb, it is described as a historical phenomenon of the 1980s rather than a constitutive force in the present, accessed September 15, 2014, http://warhol.gradientlabs.com/#/network?id=594. For Terry Smith’s writings globalization as the foundational criteria for the contemporary, see: Terry Smith, What is Contemporary Art? (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009).
  9. Manuel Castells describes the “network society” as the “structural domination of the space of flows over the space of places,” in other words the instantaneous flow of information in the digital age has resulted in the displacement of the concrete time of specific places to the “timeless time” of global connectivity. Manuel Castells, The Rise of the Network Society (Oxford: Blackwell, 1996), 398.
  10. My understanding of the network society as a movement out of time and into space is informed by Castells, however other theorists like Paul Virilio understands of our networked condition as one in which global information networks destroy space in favor of time. See: Paul Virilio, The Information Bomb (London and New York: Verso, 2000).
  11. On “hyper-space” and the post-modern condition, see: Frederic Jameson, Postmodernism, Or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Duke University Press, 1991), 1-54.
  12. For information about Andy Warhol’s Time Capsules, which constitute the keystone of The Warhol’s archives and once catalogued into a searching database undoubtedly will reveal many fascinating unforeseen patterns, see: http://www.warhol.org/collection/archives/ (accessed September 21, 2014) For a particularly poignant account of coming into contact with Warhol’s Time Capsules and the strange attachments formed in the process, listen to Starlee Kine’s first person narrative on the “Thought that Counts,” This American Life episode 514 (December 20, 2013), accessed September 21, 2014, http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/514/thought-that-counts?act=2#play

 

Bio

Miriam Kienle is a Visiting Assistant Professor at DePauw University, where she teaches courses in the history of modern and contemporary art. Her dissertation, “Community at a Distance: Ray Johnson’s Mail Art Network, 1955-75,” analyzes Johnson’s role as the initiator of the international “mail art” movement through the lenses of postal history, post-war avant-gardism, and theories of gender and sexuality. For her research on Johnson, she has received grants and fellowships from the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS), Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities (IPRH), and the Association of Historians of American Art (AHAA). At the 2014 Southeastern College Art Association Conference (SECAC), she is chairing a panel titled: “Artworks + Networks: Materializing Connectivity in Art Historical Research.”
miriamkienle@gmail.com