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Fred Forest - Retrospective
Sociologic art - Aesthetic of communication
Exhibition Generative art - November, 2000
Exhibition Biennale 3000 - Sao Paulo - 2006
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Louis-José Lestocart English version
Louis-José Lestocart : l'oeuvre-système invisible ou l'O-S-I English version
Vinton Cerf English version
Priscila Arantes Curator of the exhibiton "Retrospective au Paço das Artes" English version
Michaël F Leruth English version
Evelyne Rogue French version
Annick Bureaud English version
Mario Costa English version
Jean Devèze English version
Vilem Flusser English version
Derrick de Kerckhove English version
Pierre Lévy English version
Marshall McLuhan English version
Pierre Moeglin English version
Frank Popper English version
François Rabate English version
Pierre Restany English version
Pierre Restany English version
Pierre Restany English version
Pierre Restany English version
Edgar Morin English version
Harald Szeemann English version
1 - Synthetisis note on the activities of Fred Forest
2 - Manifests Sociological Art (1974) and Aesthetics of the Communication (1983)
3 - The Aesthetics of the Communication by Fred Forest (1983)
4 - For an Aesthetics of Communication - Fred Forest
5 - The Video family by Fred Forest (1976)
6 - Learn to watch TV through the radio by Fred Forest and Pierre Moeglin (1984)   
7 - Why present his candidacy for President of the Bulgarian TV by Fred Forest (1991)


Utopian Art in Reverse

Michael Leruth, Associate Professor at the College of William and Mary, Virginia, U.S.A.

Fred Forest is one artist who still believes in the utopian function of art.  It’s a belief that he has affirmed in no uncertain terms from one end of his career to the other, from the sociological art of the 70s, dedicated to translating the “real” (i.e., sociological actuality) into “reality” (i.e., epistemological meaning) through “utopian action” [1] in the form of inter-subjective events created using non-artistic media of communication (video, print media, TV); to the “art of the present,” in which the artist acts as the “initiator of new forms of utopia” [2] by installing “instruments of anthropological prospection” in the heart of our “hyper-technological environment” (e.g., the Internet).  Moreover, only an incorrigible utopian could lead a procession of protesters brandishing blank signs through the streets of Sao Paulo under the watchful eyes of the political police in 1973, invite friends and strangers to become citizens of his sovereign “Territory of the Square Meter” in 1980, appear on Bulgarian national television literally in rose-colored glasses in 1991 in order to campaign for the presidency of the national network of this not yet entirely post-Stalinist country on the basis of a platform calling for a “more utopian and nervous” form of TV, and openly challenge the right-wing mayor of Nice in 2005 with digital “Stations of the Cross,” created online by the public, publicizing the city’s suffering under his administration.  However, Forest is an atypical utopian for reasons that go well beyond the nerve he displays in his willingness to defy authority.  His originality resides in the fact that he shows us the way to a utopian form of art that escapes the “postmodern condition.”  It resides above all in the fact that the utopian stance deployed in his most powerful works actually puts utopia in reverse.

Forest understands that the only truly utopian stance still possible today is one that works in reverse because the space normally reserved for utopia has become inaccessible to us.  The dictionary informs us that utopia literally means “not a place.” This non-place is, we know, the imaginary setting for our fantasies of the perfect society.  It originated in the Italian Renaissance alongside perspective and the capacity to project oneself from a supposedly fixed vantage point within contingent reality into an ideal dimension of space, where the imperfections of the real world could be corrected and society’s most rational, just, and progressive projects could be realized … in principle.  The “Ideal Town” formerly attributed to Piero Della Francesca ranks as the “first” modern utopia in the history of art.  According to Zaki Laïdi, the “perspective turn” of European culture is the ultimate source of the modern idea of progress, which results from the “temporalization of perspective,” i.e., from a double projection into virtual realms of both space (utopia) and time (heterochrony):  the ideal society “takes place” in a quasi-mythical future at the end of History. [3]   It is unfortunately part of the so-called “postmodern condition” to make this type of utopian projection inconceivable.  Several explanations for this development have been offered.  According to Lyotard, the problem is that we can no longer bring ourselves to believe in the master-narratives of modernity (Enlightenment, Progress, Revolution, etc.); whereas for Virilio, Laïdi, and Maffessoli, it is because we live under the sway of a hegemonic and perhaps tyrannical present.  In other words, we lack both the faith and the time it takes for utopia.  However, if one is to really grasp what Forest is doing, one must pause to consider the thesis formulated by Jean Baudrillard.  According to Baudrillard, the true cause of our postmodern dysfunction resides in the fact that the “perspectival space” into which we formerly projected the social ideal of the utopian project has been turned into a “space of simulation,” a space of networks and screens, where we display a different social ideal, based on anonymous connection, and the only notion still vaguely resembling utopia involves “total dissemination and maintaining maximum information flow to individuals as if they were so many computer terminals.” [4]   This is the “cybernetic” utopia of a virtual space that is simultaneously everywhere (globalization, ubiquity) and nowhere in particular (deterritorialization, cyberspace), where any piece of information—which is essentially equal to any other piece of information given that meaning has been dissolved in a pool of floating signifiers—is both instantly and economically circulated far and wide.  This “utopia” has nothing to do with projects for it is already an established fact—the fully realized utopia of ecstatic communication—that is now an integral part of our world.

So what exactly does it mean to create a utopia in reverse in this kind of context?  Whereas in the framework of the traditional idea of utopia it was a question of projection beyond the real world into a virtual space that provided the utopian setting for the ideal society, it is now a question of operating from within the virtual, pseudo-utopian social space of communication in order to project a new sense of the real world itself.  This does not mean perfecting the real-world illusion of virtual reality, nor does it mean nostalgically fleeing the virtual for the mythical real world that used to be.  It is a question recreating a real world out of the virtual one that now envelops us.  One is dealing with a genuinely utopian form of action because the virtual space of communication is as inextricable as the space of contingent reality out of which our former utopias were made and it therefore takes as great a leap of the imagination to project a real world from within the latter as it did to project the virtual world of utopia from within the former.  In any event, there is no true opposition between the real and the virtual in the utopian gesture, in either its old or its new form, because, in each case, one is always the projection of the other.

In concrete terms, Forest tropes the virtual space of communication in various ways that have the reverse utopian effect of transforming that space into something real, if only for but a fleeting moment.  Let us evoke here four of the most important of Forest’s reverse utopian tropes.  In actions like “150cm2 of newspaper” in 1972 and “The City Invaded by Blank Space” in 1973, he sidesteps the trap of the dissolution of meaning in mass communication by evacuating content altogether in favor of exhibiting the pure possibility of the existence of a public space open to dialog—a utopian gesture in the case of the small blank “interactive” box he had published in the pages of Le Monde, and downright subversive in the case of his mock street demonstration in Sao Paulo.  In actions like “Celebration of the Present” in 1985 (a motorcycle ride through the streets of Naples taken in order to answer a ringing phone seen on television) and “The Telephonic Faucet” of 1992 (the use of long distance telephone lines to fill a bucket of water from remote locations), Forest both humorously and poetically demonstrates that physical space is not so much abolished—in fact, it is still indispensable—as it is rendered more sublime in the age of telecommunications.  In other words, Forest’s utopian art in reverse shows us how its very “commonplaceness” is potentially “transfigured” by the passage of electronic signals through it. [5]   In actions like “The Press Conference of Babel” in 1983 or “Learn How to Watch Television by Listening to Your Radio” in 1984, he offers the public alternative interfaces that allow them to momentarily reclaim the “territory” occupied by those who control the media.  This territory becomes real through their unique presence to one another in it as a utopian community established in a collective act of electronic squatting.  Finally, in actions on the Web like “Time Out” in 1998 (an around-the-world tour via webcam in which the noon hour repeated itself over and over again during the course of a 24-hour period) and “The Center of the World” (an installation centering on a digital relic of the bygone center of the world to which one could make a pilgrimage either on foot or online), Forest takes up position in ritual time to “consecrate” a form of space that is neither real nor virtual, but the threshold between the two, passing through which plunges one into a state of liminality, the “subjunctive mood” of collective performance in which all utopias are possible. [6]

Put in reverse in the works of Fred Forest, utopia once again becomes real to us and art covers an ethical sense of purpose in society.

[1] Fred Forest, “Réflexions sur l’art sociologique” in Art sociologique: dossier Fred Forest (Paris: 10/18-U.G.E., 1977): 62. 

[2] Fred Forest, Pour un art actuel: l’art à l’heure d’Internet (Paris: L’Harmattan, 1998): 254. 

[3] See Zaki Laïdi, Le sacre du présent (Paris: Flammarion, 2000): 43-97.  See also Olivier Grau, Virtual Art: From Illusion to Immersion (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002).

[4] Jean Baudrillard, A l’ombre des majorités silencieuses, ou la fin du social (1978 ; Paris : Denoël-Gonthier, 1982) : 88.

[5] See Arthur C. Danto, The Transfiguration of the Commonplace: A Philosophy of Art (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981); see also Mario Costa, Il sublime technologico (Naples: Edisud, 1990).

[6] See Michael F. Leruth, “From Aesthetics to Liminality: The Web Art of Fred Forest,” Mosaic 37.2 (June 2004): 79-106.


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