The Virtue of Reality: “Puntos de luz”, the butterfly effect, and (web) site-specificity

[Originally published in by Chema Alvargonzalez]

The butterfly effect, first formulated by meteorologist Edward Lorenz in the 1970s, “refers to the idea that whether or not a butterfly flaps its wing in one part of the world can make a difference in whether or not a storm arises one year later on the other side of the world.” It is therefore impossible, even in theory, to make predictions about the behavior of chaotic systems such as the weather system. Or artist Chema Alvargonzalez’s aleatory installation project titled “Puntos de luz”, whereby anyone with access to the internet can turn on the lights that he has attached to the exterior walls of the recently inaugurated CaixaForum in Barcelona (originally the Casarramona textile factory, by architect Josep Puig i Cadafalch, 1910-11).

The two sites of this project—the building and the web—are each vital to the idea and functioning of the installation: without either, the electrical circuit would be incomplete. In other words, this web site is not just a promotional or explanatory accompaniment to the art, but a component that makes the work interactive, dynamic, and therefore unpredictable. Furthermore, this web site makes it possible to cause a real (albeit minor) change in a real place: to turn on a light bulb in Barcelona. Very few web sites are “really” interactive. Most so-called “interactive” web sites enable only virtual interaction.

The installation “Puntos de luz” can be seen, then, to be reversing the usual roles played by so-called “real” and “virtual” realms: the web site is a physical switching mechanism; while the building’s blinking lights are a transmitter of information; a “web-o-meter” that indicates the amount of (inter) activity on the web site, not unlike the way a modem’s LEDs blink to indicate the sending and receiving of bytes.

This reversal between the real and the virtual complicates the notion of site-specificity in art. As is by now well known, site-specificity became a central concern in art with the emergence, in the 1960s and 70s, of new artistic practices such as installation art, land art, minimalism, conceptual art, and performance art. While expanding the field beyond painting and sculpture, these emergent practices also sought to engage the physical context of a work of art. The notion of ‘place’ and the tectonics of a particular building or landscape—or a particular type of building or landscape—became an inseparable component of the art. A marked preference continues to exist in contemporary artistic practice for physically integrating works directly with the ground of landscape or the floors and walls of buildings, obviating the traditional role of the pedestal in sculpture and the picture-frame in painting.

Since the emergence and recent popularization of the internet, the web is becoming another important site and form of artistic practice. In addition to the many “virtual galleries” that can be visited on the internet, many established art institutions run web-based programs in addition to their building-based programs. Unlike museums made of bricks and mortar, virtual museums stay open 24/7 and are much less expensive to build, maintain and program. Despite references to “firewalls” and “portals”, the internet has no physical architectural elements, of course. It is an abstract, atectonic space that is nowhere in particular and yet accessible from anywhere; a tabula rasa that is virtually free of contingency—the perfect non-place. Nothing, it seems, could be further from the notion of site-specificity and the idea of place than the internet.

Yet one could say the same about the idea of the paradigmatic “white cube” gallery space a type of space that has been the subject of much artistic investigation and critique. This kind of gallery space is generic and architecturally abstract, appearing, often, to set itself apart from its urban context. Just as the traditional frame and pedestal were used to separate and “elevate” the work of art from the architectural chaos of the salon-type exhibition space, so the white cube gallery separates the work of art from the urban chaos outside. The white cube is hardly any more conducive to site-specific art than the internet, then.

We might see “Puntos de luz”, perhaps, as a “web site-specific” installation that capitalizes on the enormous outreach of the internet precisely to induce reflection on the very idea of site-specificity in the age of the internet. When you turn that lightbulb on in Barcelona, think about what the flap of a butterfly’s wing has been known to cause on the other side of the ocean.


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1 Comment

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