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Art Packets & Cultural Politics: A brief reflection on the work of Joelle Dietrick and Owen Mundy, by Eduardo Navas

Image: Joelle Dietrick and Owen Mundy, “Grid Sequence Me and The Sea is a Smooth Space,” 2013, Three Channel Projection Dimensions variable, Flashpoint Gallery, Washington D.C., Photographs by Brandon Webster

The following essay was published in Joelle Dietrick’s and Owen Mundy’s art catalog survey of their ongoing art collaboration titled Packet Switching, published at the end of 2014. A PDF of the actual catalog is available for download. I want to thank Joelle and Owen for inviting me to write about their work, which, as the essay should make evident, I consider an important contribution to contemporary media art practice.


Joelle Dietrick’s and Owen Mundy’s ongoing body of work titled Packet Switching focuses on the relation among information exchange, architecture, and social issues. They examine and appropriate the action of data transfer across networks to show the major implications that these three cultural elements have at large.  Packet Switching, in technical terms, is straight-forward; it is designed to be practical, to transfer information over a network, broken into small pieces at point A then to be sent to point B, where it is put back together. Each packet does not necessarily take the same route, and may even go through different cities around the world before it gets to its final destination. The technology that makes this possible was first introduced as a strategic tactic by the U.S. Government to win The Cold War.

Throughout the 1950s and 60s the relation between the military and research universities was the foundation of our contemporary networked culture.[1]  Packet switching was used to send information from and to various centers across the United States. Such a decentralized system of intelligence was developed in case of a Soviet Attack. The network used for this information exchange eventually became the foundation of the Internet.[2] It is evident that delivering information from point A to point B was politically motivated, and in this sense its cultural implementation was pre-defined by the struggle for global power.

Packet Switching, then, in cultural terms, is complex; when it was introduced to the world with the use of the Internet, it came to redefine every aspect of daily life from the way people communicate with others to the way people understand themselves as part of a society. Packet switching in effect is both a technological and ideological action. The relation of these actions is the driving force behind Dietrick and Mundy’s ongoing body of work. Their production consistently points to the history and politics behind a seemingly straight forward functional act of information transfer. Their work connects real aspects of daily life to aesthetics, making evident that they are intimately linked and therefore must be understood as parallel elements that reshape cultures not only in the United States but all over the world. In the realm of aesthetics, Packet Switching is a worthy contribution to the ongoing relation between art and culture, as well as the complexity of art practice, itself, following a line of inquiry that goes back to the days of minimal art throughout the 1970s.

Art Packets
Dietrick’s and Mundy’s work in its most reductive form is data which is reconfigured for specific exhibition settings. So far different projects have been shown in a few cities including, Kassel, Germany; Tallahassee, Florida; Washington D.C. and Orlando, Florida.

Dietrick’s and Mundy’s installations are not merely formal exercises. When looking at the source code of their works, one learns that it consists of information about pre-existing architectural structures, or the housing and real estate markets relevant to the cities in which the work is being shown, which is reconfigured to create semi-abstract images that appear to be in the process of becoming something, never fully completed: in potentia.

The first installation in Kassel conceived for the Temporary Home exhibition during Documenta 13 in July of 2012 already offered a sense of the process through which the body of work would eventually be moving: from large static wall prints to generated animations to be projected on the gallery walls.

Kassel’s installation, in historical terms, is a contribution to the tradition of the white cube, and as such, the gallery visitor was able to evaluate the abstract architectural forms on principles of beauty. The viewer was encouraged to become aware of the gallery space as an architectural environment that aside from the large wall-print, was empty. At the same time, the design was defined by architectural data specific to German architecture; information-fragments of virtual models of Bauhaus buildings were literally remixed to develop the abstract design. And here we can note an important point that will recur in the work of Dietrick and Mundy, which is the use of pre-existing architectural data to develop semi-abstract visualizations.  Given the tradition of appropriation in art practice as a type of commentary, this action, by default, makes their work prone to be a critical reflection on the material it appropriates, even if it appears as a design primarily produced for aesthetic experience. As it becomes evident in the analysis of other installations developed later, this aspect of Dietrick’s and Mundy’s work becomes crucial in bridging the relation between art experienced in the gallery and the sources taken from the world beyond the white cube to develop such work.

Their next wall-print visualization was installed at Weimer Hall in the College of Journalism and Communications at the University of Florida, Gainesville. The philosophy in the construction of this building is to have all media, web, print, TV, and radio together in one space for open collaboration. In this case the work functions along the lines of public art. What this installation shares in common with the first version in Kassel is a clear relation to the architectural space in which it is displayed; in both cases the works of art  demand of the visitor to reconsider the aspects of the buildings that may be taken for granted; however, the installation at the university carefully complements the environment, to the point that, arguably, it gets lost within the architecture, becoming inseparable from it; thus providing an aesthetic experience: a visual form as background noise.

When the design is acknowledged one can reflect on the abstract forms independently, while realizing that they are integral to the architectural space. The design unexpectedly gives a sense of disruption, because the image clashes against the building’s proportions. It does not have uniform vertical and horizontal lines that follow and complement the architecture, but diagonals that move across the walls delineating bright-colored areas that clearly  invite the viewer to question their assumptions about the building itself.

The apparent movement of the architectural structures first introduced in Kassel and Tallahassee comes to be fully animated in the exhibition Grid, Sequence Me. which took place in Washington D.C. In this case, the gallery visitor is able to experience the actual movement of the architectural elements in real time, according to the computer programming by the artists. Transparency is a key point for this installation, which is why the source code is also projected on one of the walls, for the viewer to appreciate the actual process behind the animated wall projections.

This exhibition consisted of two new projections generated with custom software that through its fragmentation of images of publicly-owned buildings in downtown Washington D.C. makes a metaphorical reference to the complex financial systems of the housing market boom. And it is at this point that the artists’ interests in connecting aesthetics with cultural issues become most apparent. In this installation any possible aesthetic experience is met with a reality check, in which the viewer must evaluate how an apparent beautiful image is possible thanks to the dire situation of an economic market.

The postmodern preoccupation with the object of art eventually manifests itself in Dietrick’s and Mundy’s installation 1.5 x 3.5 at the Orlando Museum of Art. This piece is directly related to the tradition of minimalist art. As such,  the artists cite the work of Tony Smith; specifically his writing about the time he drove over an unfinished turnpike in New Jersey. Smith’s incident became known through an interview that was published in the art magazine Artforum in December 1966,[3] and eventually was mentioned by Michael Fried in his essay “Art and Objecthood” as an example of “literalist art” or “ABC art” as he came to define minimalism and other art production that he deemed not to follow Greenbergian aesthetics, taking place during the seventies.[4] Fried’s contention with work such as Smith’s is that it emphasizes a theatricality in art, something that he argued should be distanced from visual art practice because it devalued the experience that art could provide the viewer.  In short, for Fried the work of Smith and his contemporaries diminished the aesthetic experience that art (all the arts including theater) could provide the viewer because it did not offer “presentness”[5] but instead it made reference to the context and the environment which makes the art experience possible.

Cultural Politics
New media art, certainly work similar to Dietrick’s and Mundy’s, has a direct relationship to minimalism. This begins to be apparent in the museum of Kassel’s installation, it becomes evident in the Washington D.C. exhibition, and is fully manifested in their exhibition properly titled Packet Switching at the Orlando Museum, in which the influence of, particularly, the work of Smith is clear.  They write when describing the work:

Ubiquitous as an article for the construction of buildings, as well as a formal, minimal, primitive shape, the 2 x 4 here is transformed through its incorporation into a virtual space. The simulation of the generic form becomes an index for any building material, physical or digital, and its manipulation, a metaphor for the fragmentation of digital communication.[6]

One of Fried’s criticism of Smith’s experience on the New Jersey turnpike is that it points to an inexhaustible possibility which needs no object.  The highway in front of Smith is interpreted by Fried as the possibility to experience “endlessness,”[7] which for him takes away from the presentness that the work of art is supposed to offer the viewer. In fact, Fried considered the hesitance of Robert Morris (another contemporary of Smith), to place minimal objects into the open air, in nature as proof that what literalists art performed in the gallery was what Smith experienced on the turnpike.[8]

The animation by Dietrick and Mundy reenacts the sensibility which Fried critiqued. In their installation, a single beam not only moves in space, but also multiplies to eventually construct, or allude to the possibility of building some type of living space.  Following the hint from Smith’s drive down the incomplete highway, the beam was inspired by a housing development just northeast of Orlando, nestled between the Florida Turnpike and Old Country Road 50. In this sense the potential of literal art to let the world experience a moment that is supposed to privilege presentness comes to take effect, and again one is reminded on the fluctuating economy of the real estate market in the United States, because one has to acknowledge the politics of the U. S. economy and culture.

Switching Packets
At the time of this writing it is well accepted that minimalism, and other forms of art practices, such as performance, and conceptualism, fully acknowledge their relation to the world beyond the white cube. If anything, many contemporary artists strive to make this connection the very core of their practice.  Dietrick and Mundy contribute to this paradigm by taking on the minimalist tradition to comment on the frictions of real estate and architecture in the specific places where their works are exhibited. And by using the concept and technology of packet switching to develop their wall-prints and installations, they remind the viewer of the social context that consists of class relations and the economy that informs the very moments in which we may have an aesthetic experience; one which paradoxically is contingent on information access and interpretation. In other words, in Dietrick’s and Mundy’s work the viewer can appreciate art for its presentness while also understanding that it is informed by complex social and economic issues which paradoxically make the aesthetic experience in the art gallery possible. Their work makes evident that trying to create an art work in which one can escape to have an aesthetic experience without politics is to play into the very politics one is trying to escape, especially in a time when information flows to be remixed everywhere.

Remixing Packets
Presenteness is mashed with politics in Packet Switching. Dietrick and Mundy update and reposition the principles that informed minimalism but they do so with no actual object. There is only information, data at play, which is displayed as a projection on gallery walls.  What’s more, one is aware that such simulation is basically code reconfigured–remixed–to appear as a series of objects that one can recognize as an open-ended, ever-evolving piece of construction.  Packet Switching is a body of work that takes on the very principles of the society of the spectacle; it takes theatricality as critiqued and defined by Fried, and makes art that demands critical reflection from the viewer, but at the same time is abstract and open-ended as a visual experience. One can evaluate the works in terms of aesthetics, but one eventually must also face the social infrastructure that makes such experience possible. It is the balance between these two areas of cultural production that is not always easy to touch upon successfully. Like true hackers, then, Dietrick and Mundy crack into the codes of both the economy and aesthetics to expose the relation among information exchange, architecture, and social issues which are part of a network that affects all aspects of society and culture.

[1] Paul Edwards, The Closed World (Cambridge, Massachussetts: MIT Press, 1996), 43 – 74.
[2] For a consise history see “Brief History of the Internet,” Internet Society, http://www.internetsociety.org/internet/what-internet/history-internet/brief-history-internet, accessed December 15, 2013.
[3] Tony Smith, “From an Interview with Samuel Wagstaff Jr.,” Art in Theory, eds. Charles Harrison and Paul Wood (Oxford, U.K. and Cambridge, U.S.: Blackwell Press, 1995), 741.
[4] See footnote 8 in Fried’s text, where Fried claims that theatricality links the minimalists to other artists in different disciplines, such as Kaprow, Cornell, Rauschenberg, Oldenburg, etc: Michael Fried, “Art and Objecthood,” Minimal Art, ed. Gregory Battcock (Berkley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 1995),  130.
[5] Ibid, 147.
[6] Owen Mundy’s website, http://owenmundy.com/site/1.5×3.5, accessed on December 15, 2013
[7] Fried, 144
[8] Ibid, 135.

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