Vuk Who? Classical Canonicity, Mass Effect and Rhizome’s Net Art Anthology

After yesterday’s rather extreme post that called for a “Classics without Antiquity”, aka the grounding of any engagement between Classicists and contemporary artists in the abandoning of antiquity (at least temporarily) by the former so as to better immerse themselves in contemporary debates, today I feel a palpable sense of responsibility to offer some kind of supporting example. Given that I mentioned the internet as a productive ‘site’ (pun intended) for dialogue between Classicists and artists, and suggested that the anthology Mass Effect: Art and the Internet in the Twenty-First Century may be a good place to start, here is an example gleaned from its pages.

In their introduction to the volume, editors Lauren Cornell and Ed Halter attempt to clarify the scope of their project, privileging “artistic practice..from roughly 2002”, in contrast to the so-called net.art movement of the 1990s, which, they claim, has “already been extensively historicized”. Pointing to the palpable failure of museums and galleries to “successfully integrate internet-based practices into traditional art spaces”, the editors of Mass Effect proceed to show, through the examples of Cory Arcangel, Seth Price and Paper Rad (a trio of artists who created the website Paperrad.org in 2001), that “the either/or choice…of net.art’s institutionalization vs. its continued underground existence…proved premature.”

While several net.art pioneers (e.g. Olia Lialina, Alexei Shulgin and Heath Bunting) appear in the pages of Mass Effect, either as authors or as references, the person responsible for coining the term net.art – Slovenian artist Vuk Ćosić – is absent. His absence becomes more apparent when we compare Mass Effect to Rhizome’s Net Art Anthology, a two-year project started last October. The website is an attempt to bridge the ‘classics’ of net.art with the expanded work of artists working within contemporary internet culture discussed in Mass Effect. Given the emphasis on documenta 14 during this year of “Minus Plato Today”, it is no wonder that I was drawn to Vuk Ćosić’s 1997 work included in the Anthology: Documenta Done. Here is how the project is described on the Net Art Anthology website:

 

Read in light of Ćosić’ project, the approach to net.art in the introduction and content of Mass Effect, resembles the deletion and recovery of the work of internet-based artists during and after Documenta X (the first image of this post comes from an installation view of the net.art section of the exhibition). In archiving Ćosić’s website, Rhizome is reactivating the artist’s original gesture when faced with institutional erasure at the original Documenta X exhibition. Furthermore, the inclusion of Ćosić’s work in the Net Art Anthology, in contrast to Mass Effect, affirms the canonicity of Documenta Done, beyond the limited 1990s movement of net.art pioneers. (For Ćosić’s own work on developing a canon of net.art, see classics of net.art on his website).

In yesterday’s Minus Plato post, when I offered a (very selective) list of topics and methods that Classicists could engage with when working beyond antiquity, the idea of the canon was among them. One of the best introduction to the idea of the Classical canon is found in an essay by Classicist Ahuvia Kahane called “Fan fiction, early Greece, and the historicity of canon” for the online, peer-reviewed journal Transformative Works and Cultures. Published last year in a special issue edited by Ika Willis called The Classical Canon and/as Transformative Work, Kahane’s article formulates a revised notion of canonicity by analyzing contemporary traditions of fan-fiction alongside ancient Greek oral poetry. In the abstract, Kahane describes how:

the discussion moves away from the idea of canon as a set of valued works and toward canon as a practice of containment in response to inherent states of surplus. This view of canon is applied to the practice of fan fiction, reestablishing the idea of canonicity in fluid production environments within a revised, historically specific understanding in early oral traditions on the one hand and in digital cultures and fan fiction on the other.

Towards the end of his essay, Kahane shows how some early epigraphic Greek texts were deeply embedded within oral environments, offering the example of the so-called Nestor’s Cup and its brief inscription’s relationship with Homeric poetry (specifically the description of the cup in book 11 of Homer’s Iliad). (Here below is screen grab of Kahane’s article, showing an image of Nestor’s Cup, along with a transcription of the inscription and a translation – you may need to click on the image to actually be able to read it!):

Kahane articulates the relationship between the canonical Greek epic and this modest artifact as follows:

The canonicity of Homer’s monumental epic has not silenced it [the cup]. Indeed, the function of the cup depends on such canon and on some version of it. The canonical text may have been available in a more fixed, written form or, more likely, in more fluid, sung performances. The man who will have raised this cup to his lips is likely to have known the epic tradition, and if he did not, he is unlikely to have asked, “Nestor who?” and admitted his ignorance. The cup, both object and text, thus attest to an essential dialectic between canon and explicitly noncanonical local meanings and functions. The text poaches the Homeric source and character of Nestor, but it appropriates his role and transposes it onto a new context and the activities of an original character (in the fan fiction sense): the unnamed and far more humble real-life 8th-century symposiast. The cup reuses the source material for a purpose clearly neither intended nor envisioned in the canon, in “the story as told by the original author”.

When Kahane imagines an ancient ‘user’ of the Nestor Cup as not asking ‘Nestor Who?’ on account of his (and it is assumed to be a ‘he’) presumed immersion in ancient oral environment in which Homer’s poem was widely known, I wonder whether there is another dimension of this dialectic between canon and noncanonical at work, one that is closer to the debate surrounding the anthologizing of net.art within Net Art? Presumably, even if the ancient ‘user’ of the cup may not ask ‘Nestor Who?’, he may wonder what is the connection between this being the cup of Nestor, the wise-old man of the Greek army and the process whereby they, the person holding, reading and drinking from the cup, are seized by “the desire of beautifully crowned Aphrodite”? There is no scene in Homer’s Iliad that imagines Nestor in love or any other encounter between this hero and goddess of love. On a quick Google search for “Nestor” and “Aphrodite”, the only results that appear relate to the inscription on the Nestor Cup. What, then, is going on? One answer could be that the Nestor Cup is more directly conflating the canonical environment of the Homeric poem (i.e. knowing who Nestor is and that he has a cup, albeit a grand, engraved one) and the canonical environment of the role of poetry and desire in the symposium setting. In an elegy by Anacreon (Campbell 2), we hear of the list of appropriate topics for discussion while drinking wine: one shouldn’t mention war or strife (very ‘epic’ concerns) but should ‘mix the Muses and Aphrodite’ as one would wine and water. Given this, rather than the dialectic between canon and non-canonical, could Nestor’s Cup be operating at the meeting point of two canons, one the oral epic tradition of Homer and the other the oral symposiastic and elegiac tradition, as represented by Anacreon (who, admittedly, was writing much later)?

Here we may return to the choice between separating or conflating the net.art/Net Art canons as represented by Mass Effect and Rhizome’s Net Art Anthology. If readers of Mass Effect can say ‘Vuk Who?’, it is not because a non-canonical tradition (net.art) has not yet reached canonical status. Instead it is a conscious, editorial decision to either limit (Mass Effect) or expand (Rhizome’s Net Art Anthology) the anthology beyond the narrow confines of another canonical tradition. For scholars of ancient poetry and internet art, we share the same question: what happens when canons collide? Furthermore, and this is perhaps the most important point for Minus Plato, what happens when artists work out of the moment at which canons collide? My beef with Classicists turning to and valorizing how artists engage with Classical sculpture, even as just a way in to broader discussions of the dialectic between the Classical and contemporary art, is that it is in itself a canon-forming gesture. As Classicists, we should be well-aware of how this works and that it is the tension with the canon and between canons that is the life-blood of our discipline. So, in short, if we are truly interested in contemporary art, we need to work harder at removing ourselves out of our comfort zone and weighing into debates that contemporary artists care about and are engaged in. Of course, this may include the appropriation and transformation of art history through the manipulation of the form of Classical sculptures, but, as Minus Plato has endeavored to show, that is only the tip of the iceberg.

One thought on “Vuk Who? Classical Canonicity, Mass Effect and Rhizome’s Net Art Anthology

  1. May Mergenthaler

    Hello Richard, I have not been able to read every post and I am neither an expert in Classics, nor art, but I fully support your plea for an engagement with the “Classics” in contemporary art that goes beyond an engagement with Classical sculpture. For instance, I like the example of the inscription taken from a Classical text on “Nestor´s Cup,” since it shows how contemporary (e.g., fan-like) engagements with the Classics may themselves be part of a Classical tradition, thus changing what is perceived as that very tradition. – I think the task of a scholar may be to try to systematize the different kinds of engagement with the Classics in contemporary art and create some kind of diagram or map – or book -, which can then be used both by artists and scholars of Classics (and all those, like myself, who refer to it) to become more self-aware of what they are doing, consciously or not. (It reminds me of a debate we had yesterday about transnational cultural practices: one assumes that one culture called “East” encounters another called “West,” when in fact they have already be intertwined, and both already react to this intertwining.) In any case, I would be very interested in seeing or reading such a work. It could be a book about the various possible intersections between Classics and the Arts that you have discovered or invented through your blog, but that book could perhaps serve as a starting point for responses, adaptations by both artists and scholars, so that it becomes part of the social scholarly-artistic practice that you seem to be longing for. But I may just be stating the obvious… – In the meantime, your readers can hopefully read your blog backwards, out of order, and catch up on all the entries missed.

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