In my first year studying Digital Media Arts at the University of Surrey, I wrote an essay analysing “Stagnation Means Decline” by Rafaël Rozendaal in relation to its historical influences. I am now able to publish this online.
Stagnation Means Decline (Rozendaal, 2002) is a piece of Internet artwork produced by Dutch-Brazilian visual artist Rafaël Rozendaal, founder of the “Bring Your Own Beamer” movement, in 2002. The work, available here, features animated stacks of dollar bills which appear to be growing at different rates. Each dollar bill is the same size, although those on the stacks towards the top of the screen appear to be further away – giving the work a depth of field. The page never fills up, as new stacks appear to start at the bottom of the page. There is a cartoon aesthetic in this piece which is comparable to that of The Simpsons.
This work is particularly exciting as it has strong connections to multiple Avant Garde art movements. In The Avant-Garde: A Very Short Introduction (Cottington, 2013), David Cottington, an Oxford graduate, author and professor in his field, quotes the Communist Manifesto in his explanation of Avant Garde. “Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones” (Marx & Engels, 1848). There is a strong connection between this explanation and Rozendaal’s piece, which experiments with new environments, audiences, political ideas and, what were at the time, fairly new technologies.
Fluid Screens, Expanded Cinema also explains, when referring to screens within a network, “they indicate a moment of performance when otherwise indistinguishable inscriptions … become an encounter between a view and an intelligible image” (Marchessault & Lord, 2007). This explains how expanded cinema is based on performance; what is happening is an event, a unique experience between the viewer and the media they’re encountering. The use of computer languages in this piece takes the idea that expanded cinema is an event even further; each time the piece is loaded it will load in a different way, especially with the range of devices and software available to access the work. Rozendaal explains, “I kind of create fountains or waterfalls; so it’s always doing the same thing, but not really” (DLD Conference, 2014). This fleeting nature also shows that the piece has ties with The Happenings movement as well as allowing the artist to break away from traditional narrative storytelling.
Furthermore, Rozedaal also explores our participatory culture in which we share things with each other over the Internet. This piece, as with his other works, is given a domain name and made publicly accessible over the Internet. In doing so, this allows everyone with access to the Internet to see his content, even if the domain has been sold and is in somebody else’s possession. This allows the piece to move away from a traditional gallery setting with an old and rich audience, to also include a younger, less wealthy audience – particularly at a time where the price of computers was, and still is, falling rapidly. Rozendaal explains, “Physical objects are difficult to make and they’re made in a very small edition which means the audience is old and rich. So I’m hoping that with this Internet that we can have support of rich old people, but we can also have an audience which fits the artist” (The Creators Project, 2012). This allows for his work to be shared and viewed by many. The artist explains that he is proud to make his work accessible and that, “All [his] websites together reach about 35 million people a year. 35 million unique visits, and that’s more than La Louvre and the next museum combined” (DLD Conference, 2014). This has since risen to 40 million unique visits per year (Rozendaal, n.d.). It’s arguable that this could also be related to futurist and Fluxus movements which also aimed to break away from the traditional views of art.
Laying under Rozendaal’s focus on process is where the piece gets really exciting. Here, deeply rooted within the piece, we can begin to see connections towards Situationist International. Rozendaal has made technical decisions within this piece in order to critique society and in particular, capitalism. The use of code allows each stack of dollars to grow at different rates each time the work is loaded. What he has done, is created a virtual representation of the economy which our society revolves around – each stack represents businesses and individuals, growing or stagnating at different and unpredictable rates. Web Work: A History of Internet Art (Greene, 2000) quotes Reena Jana in saying, “In the Internet universe, time moves faster – sites debut and die, companies launch and go public quicker than a download on a DSL line” (Jana, 2000). Of course, this is a time of huge economic change and Rozendaal’s virtual recreation of the economy gives the viewer a hypermediate visualisation of the economy, in order for us to become aware of the capitalist society we live in.
In Society of the Spectacle, Guy Debord, a French Marxist theorist who was the founding member of Situationist International, argues that, “this is the principle of commodity fetishism, the domination of society by “intangible as well as tangible things,” which reaches its absolute fulfillment in the spectacle, where the tangible world is replaced by a selection of images which exist above it, and which simultaneously impose themselves as the tangible par excellence” (Debord, 1967). Here, Debord is saying that everything has been commoditized and that those at the top of society, i.e. the bourgeoisie, have carefully chosen images which depict a perfect lifestyle, even if that lifestyle is fake – and therefore unreachable. These images are shown to the people, in order to make them buy things and reach for this impossible utopian way of living. The people are blindly reaching out for something that does not exist and they are therefore being unconsciously exploited by the bourgeoisie. This is true of the present day, whether it’s from Starbucks or Apple, people are being sold a desirable lifestyle which they cannot achieve, simply in the interest of the companies to generate revenue. We have become oblivious to this fact as we are fully immersed in a culture which fetishizes commoditisation. That is why Rozendaal has chosen to create a virtual, hypermediate piece, which is confined to a browser tab and uses a cartoon aesthetic to represent the economy. He wants us to think critically in order to disrupt these capitalist processes because without this critical thought the bourgeoisie will continue to rule society.
The Internet is an ungoverned space in which people are free to share their ideas, as Rachel Greene explains, “Not unlike the Surrealists and Situationists, net.artists had from the beginning a penchant for publishing manifestos and firing off polemics – which were often made available through publications” (Greene, 2000). Rozendaal has chosen to use the Internet as his canvas because it is a free space for him to make his arguments and publish them to the masses without being penalised.
There, however, is irony in this choice. As stated by Rachel Greene, “By 1996 it was clear that Internet technologies were fast becoming significant cultural and economic phenomena, and the digital economy seemed to offer mysterious new financial possibilities, even for niche content providers” (Greene, 2000), she goes on to explain that, “the exhausted, commercially exploited art culture that had soared in the ‘80s and crashed in the early ‘90s was in recovery when the Internet began to take off” (Greene, 2000). It seems almost self-contradictory that Rozendaal has used such a commercial platform in order to comment on a capitalist society, especially when the “.com” domain is short for “commercial”, however, since Avant Garde works are often playful, it could be said that he was using a sarcastic tone.
Net.art exploded in the late 90’s in a time known as the .com boom, and Greene explains that, “Net.art produced a very different vibe in 1999, as net artists were seemingly empowered by their sense of pending popularity and relevance” (Greene, 2000). At a time where the Internet was still a new and emerging platform, it’s plausible to believe that Rozendaal jumped on this hype in order to mock the commercial practice of the Internet and that this was the particular focus of his work. However, the Internet is a space in which culture and commerce collide, and it’s important to remember that whilst there are worries that the Internet is too commercialised and parts of the Internet fall into the conventions of traditional, commercial organisations, the Internet provides unmeasurable freedoms which are paramount in Rozendaal’s work. Greene argues, “the Internet’s prodigious capacity for hosting and inspiring politicised, “hacktivist” artwork shouldn’t be underestimated” (Greene, 2000). Rozendaal has made, what I see as, the best choice in using the Internet as his medium for this piece.
To conclude, I have enjoyed studying this piece as I feel that, although it appears to be fairly simple, the technical aspects underneath (and theoretical points which those are based on) are incredibly interesting. This piece shows very strong connections with many Avant Garde art movements, including Futurism, Fluxus, The Happenings, Expanded Cinema and Situationist International. In particular, I feel that Rozendaal has done an impressive job of connecting the theories of Situationist International – particularly those of Guy Debord’s Society of The Spectacle (Debord, 1967) – into the mechanics of his piece. He has explored the freedoms provided by Expanded Cinema, as an art movement, and the Internet, as a medium, in order to produce a stunning critique on the aggressive commercial aspect of the Internet and, indeed, of capitalism in society today. He has given us the opportunity to reflect on this exploitation and encourages us to think critically about it. By using the world wide web, over any other medium (even other Internet mediums such as email), he has given himself the opportunity to spread his messages far and wide across the globe. He has utilised the participatory culture of our age, i.e. online social sharing, in order to do so and this has paid him dividends in sharing his message.
Cottington, D., 2013. The Avant-Garde: A Very Short Introduction. First ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Debord, G., 1967. La Société Du Spectacle. Paris: Buchet-Chastel.
DLD Conference, 2014. DLD NYC 14 – Everything Always Everywhere (Rafael Rozendaal) [Online] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QwRL8cxkkCA [Accessed 15 05 2016].
Greene, R., 2000. Web Work: A History of Internet Art. New York(NY): Artforum.
Jana, R., 2000. Net Workers. New York(NY): Artforum.
Marchessault, J. & Lord, S., 2007. Fluid Screens, Expanded Cinema. First ed. Toronto: University of Toronto Press Incorporated.
Marx, K. & Engels, F., 1848. Communist Manifesto. [Online] Available at: https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1848/communist-
manifesto/ch01.htm#007 [Accessed 14 05 2016].
Rozendaal, R., 2002. Stagnation Means Decline. [Art].
Rozendaal, R., n.d. Bio. [Online] Available at: http://www.newrafael.com/bio/ [Accessed 16 05 2016].
The Creators Project, 2012. Turning The Internet Into An Art Gallery | Rafaël Rozendaal. [Online] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q2PlTV-RvnE [Accessed 15 05 2016].