Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Ina Blom reviews Nervous Systems

Nervous Systems: Art, Systems, and Politics since the 1960s. Ed. Johanna Gosse and Timothy Stott. Durham: Duke University Press, 2022. 289 pp.

Review by Ina Blom

Nervous Systems: Art, Systems, and Politics since the 1960s revisits one of the key discursive sites informing the (by now hegemonic) artistic turn to situations, events, interventions, relations, and constellations—the ramifications of which we are still struggling to figure out despite the expansive literature on the topic. From an ontological perspective, assemblage theories may be helpful in terms of accounting for many of the key features of the shift away from representation and form, but they also risk becoming too general given their vast diversity of approaches and contexts. From this perspective, art projects that take a cue from early, cybernetically oriented systems thinking often come across as the more neatly containable among the array of new practices. Despite the emphasis on complexity and emergence, works are often relatively easily explicable as operations of flow and feedback brought to bear on a defined context or environment, with more or less identifiable effects. A critical art-historical review of this specific approach is therefore welcome, particularly to the extent that systems-oriented works tend to be ambiguously situated between modeling complex relational dynamics and instigating actual processes of change. As such they are at once symptoms of and historical contributions to what Erich Hörl calls “environmentality”—a neocybernetic update on Foucault’s concept of governmentality, outlining the ways in which system dynamics now permeate our ways of thinking and saying.[1]

However, in their early '60s and '70s formulations, systems artworks tend to be rather less subtle in their quest for operationality and their claims as to the potential for engaging circuits of power or constructing new ecologies. Hans Haacke’s critically acclaimed passage from biological and meteorological to social/economic systems is perhaps the most famous case in point, but the most interesting chapters in the book are actually the ones that document or discuss complications that may arise in the reliance on—or imagination of—systems performance. Here, Luke Skrebowski’s critical assessment of the political underpinnings of Jack Burnham’s systems aesthetics is of particular value. Instead of the ready-made Burnham that is referenced in most accounts, we get insight into his shifting positions as he was balancing Herbert Marcuse’s critique of technology against the traditions of Marxist machine thinking while trying to find a platform for systems art in the face of charges of utopian, technocratic, and teleological tendencies. Ultimately Burnham’s techno-aesthetic program emerges as a precursor and distinct alternative to the later, postmodern, rejection of Greenbergian formalism—a form of critique that, unlike systems thinking, remained closely tied to the formalist program. Equally interesting is Dawna Schuld’s account of how the unruly viewer response to a 1970 exhibition of environmental works by Doug Wheeler, Larry Bell, and Robert Irwin generated an unplanned-for institution-critical dimension that displaced the artists’ fairly quietist quest to foster spectator self-awareness and thus also viewer agency. Evidently, visitors to their Tate Gallery installations only needed the tiniest prompt in order to exercise impressive (or excessive) amounts of agency, exposing the sometimes-patronizing aspects of systems interactivity in the field of art.

The most fascinating analysis of an artistic project is, however, Kris Cohen’s text on Charles Gaines’s early '70s Gridworks; a computer-based series of portraits where racialized bodies emerge as literally subjected to the abstractions of the new raster-based graphical user interfaces. And yet, despite an obvious reference to the troubled legacy of police photography archives, this is not a story about destructive submission to the system. The political potential of these works resides precisely in the way Gaines's emphasis on the fungibility of any element of the digital screen image suggests forms of being beyond the classic oppositions between individual and mass, subject and system. As every mutable image—a demonstrable function of the manipulation of a set of coordinates—is itself a new type of collective or constellation, it opens a space beyond the annihilation of subjectivity enacted in the institution of slavery, a form of violence that is only possible to the extent that there exists a distinct, exploitable subject in the first place. Entering the system of digital fungibility then articulates new forms of freedom from capture.

With a title like Nervous Systems, I would, however, have expected some engagement with the ways in which the emergence (and increasing ubiquity) of cybernetic sensor technologies opened for artistic work on the interaction between technical and human forms of sensing. As the dominant perspective of the book is on institutional circuits and ecologies, you realize that the title is metaphorical—a somewhat quaint throwback to a time before subperceptual or noncognitive realities became a legitimate focus in critical art and art writing. Yet the material is out there, perhaps waiting for an anthology entitled Even More Nervous Systems.


[1] Erich Hörl, "Introduction to General Ecology: The Ecologization of Thinking," in General Ecology: The New Ecological Paradigm, ed. Hörl and James Burton (New York, 2017), 1–74.