Voices On the Genius of the Bit Artists

When I visited one of my artsier friends a few weekends ago I didn’t know I’d be bringing one of my new favorite books home with me. My friend lent me his copy of Legacy of the Bit Artists, and I read it voraciously on the train to and from work over the next week. Legacy is a collection of essays where academics and critics discuss the meaning and impact of a short-lived artistic movement in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s — the Bit Artists.


There were two of them, specifically. Maurice Castanviér who ignited the movement in 1979 with the first Bit work (entitled “1“), forms what is usually referred to as the “French flank”. Katerina Valedovna became the “Russian flank” (despite living in Switzerland for most of her life) when “0” was released in late 1981. By most accounts, her work represents the movement’s high point, after which there were no major contributions.

What I most enjoyed about the book was how the contributors could make me understand the greatness of these works that felt rather underwhelming to me in the beginning (the titles really say everything). They did this both by situating the works (and the movement as a whole) in their historical context and by showing examples of how they embodied unprecedented depth of meaning and interpretive richness. Because this isn’t obvious it was probably a good idea to kick off the volume with an introductory polemic against skeptics called “Those Who Don’t Get It” written by the editor Poe Hihtad. In it, he reiterates the well known truth that those who fail to appreciate avant-garde art in general and bit art in particular suffers from a misunderstanding regarding what art is supposed to be.

Laypeople, from which skeptics of bit art and indeed, of contemporary art as a whole, tend to come, are artistically conservative, even reactionary. Stuck in a traditionalist objet-centered paradigm where the semantic center of gravity is located at the physical manifestation of the artist’s intent, of course they see nothing. Their minds are not ready to do their part. Outdated notions of art as communication, the transmission of ideas, thoughts and feelings stand in the way of appreciating that the artist is dead, the artwork as a discrete entity removed from phenomenological context is dead and the experience of encounter is constitutive of the piece — and that is truly the greatness of the bit works: they make the participatory role of the encountering subject more dominant and significant than anything before them.

He goes on to argue that skeptics lacks the cognitive architecture to comprehend these works, and as a result tragically experience nothing in the face of great art:

[T]hey simply do not react, except with derisive blankness they falsely attribute to the art because they are unable to percieve what is not spelled out, unable to see what is not there. They lack the education, the cultivation, indeed the taste required. They want to know what is there, what the point is, what it all means, what is the message? They want to be spoon-fed a predetermined conclusion about that in which their own reaction is an indispensable part, creating the boundless multiplicity of meaning that separates art from mere artifact.

At the end he says that it’s the unprecedented interpretive flexibility of their works that will ensure Castanviér and Valedovna a place in the pantheon. The truly great works of literature, art and music survive because they speak to us through the ages and lend themselves to recontextualization and reinterpretation again and again.

[The bit artists] take this maxim to its natural conclusion to produce works whose flexibility and boundless generativity renders them timeless, eternal, indeed, immortal. They can and will be reinterpreted forever and ever, when they awaken from their rest, ready to activate meanings anywhere, everywhere. If we judge meaningfulness by the richness of meaning a work can potentially elicit, they are the most meaningful works in the history of humankind.

With a better understanding of the philosophical underpinnings of bit art, I was in a better position to understand the fascinating, original questions the bits raise. For example “what is art?” Jordy Babbárien of The Pierre Brassau Institute of Art discusses in his essay how the bit artists made their contribution to this long-standing conversation in the art world:

The “1” is undeniably the affirmative, and with his work Castanviér equally undeniably gave the answer to the question the world have been asking itself for so many years: “Is this art?” Castanviér says OUI, without hesitation, exception or qualification, and thereby states that anything can be art. This renders Valedovna’s work especially interesting in relation, not as a denial of Castanviér’s point — no, the works are complementary, and Valedovna urges us to, in addition to Castanviér’s focus on the front and center, fix our gaze on the between; what we have not yet recognized as art, the places we do not think of as places, the sounds we do not call music, and the interstitial moments we do not call life.

It’s great that this finally has an answer. This itself ought to make “1” the natural climax of 20th century art.

Given that, the historical context is obviously central. James Wilkins, senior research fellow at the Northumbria Institute of Technology and Culture writes in his essay “Harbingers and Echoes”, that bit art could not have existed at any other point in history, it exists at a unique nexus of past, present and future. It emerged at the spring of the electronic age, at an inflection point in our relationship to technology that manages to look back and forward at once. He writes:

The bits arrived when consumer electronics started to make inroads in our everyday lives, and with them not only the ubiquitious “power” button signified with interwoven “1” and “0” in a graphical representation of our own limitless Power over inanimate objects, who come alive only to serve us until the button turns them back into nothing so we can put them out of our mind — itself a powerful criticism of our history of slavery and dehumanization — but also the deeper underlying foundation for the computing revolution that was soon to reform the world.

After discussing how bit art relates to the breaking down of reality in tiny yet definite technical distinctions, he ends with a warning:

Castanviér and Valedovna showed the world the past, the present, and indeed the future: a world of rules all boiling down “1” and “0”, all of us ruled by the electronic arbiters of Yes or No, This or That.

Essayist and sociology grad student Katja Nagy is more direct and gloomy in her assessment of the movement’s legacy in her piece “Digital Tyranny Unmasked”:

It is beyond dispute that the “1” and the “0”, taken together form a microcosm of contemporary digital technology’s agenda of assimilating the world into its paradigm. Human experiences, human relationships and human identities are subtle and rich, thick with connotation, meaning and context. Digital technology — exemplified by its 1-0 thinking, its sorting of everything into this and that, into separated, atomized objects to be catalogued, indexed and machine-read, stripped of its subtleties, vagaries and humanity — is an imperial power advancing on the human spirit in a more ruthless and efficient way than any force in history. Its relentless, reductive deadening of life traces its lineage back to the Aristotelian logic and its fierce denial and erasure of unconquerable nuance, more recently manifested in the inhumanity of the bureaucratic state and its mechanical adherence to rules, and of course — Capitalism with its reshaping of human interaction into transaction: measured, readable, formalized and interchangeable, in which we are all replaceable parts in a mechanism, and genuine human connection is an unwanted, unaccounted for, liability — a discarded remainder left out of the books. The bit artists’ work stands unique as an unequivocal repudiation — by naked exposure — of the dominant destructive pattern with which civilization simultaneously constructs and destructs our boxed-in subjectivity.

An ongoing theme throughout the collection is how bits “designate designation” and “signifies signfication” — in the words of critic Charles Grass. They represent how we are in thrall of concepts, by the boundaries that inevitably result (the “originary differentiation of différance” as Grass calls it) from having a mind that classifies (the article from a researcher on the neuroscience of art goes into great detail on exactly this) — indeed, how the erection of boundaries itself create the objects they serve to separate.

One central such classification, that of gender, obviously get extensive treatment, some of which really opened my eyes for how much gender normativity the bit works really contain. Paulina Mikkelsen, Associate Professor of Gender Studies and Art at NYU, tells the story:

Castanviér’s statement on sexual politics was nothing short of shocking. While artists habitually coat their political messages in a modicum of ambiguity, his work remains to this day the most naked assertion of male power in the modern era. The selection of “1”, the quintessential, archetypal phallic symbol incarnated in the straight and rigid line, represents the continuing privileging of the male over the female: piercing aggression over its edgeless counterpart and its smooth, inoffensive curves. Not to mention how the “1” on a conceptual level represent all male coded properties like agency, activity, capability and freedom.

Some critics suggest that Castanviér should have chosen the “0” to kick off his movement, and by that give voice to the voiceless — women, ethnic minorities, the differently abled, the marginalized, subaltern communitites who, like the “0”, by erasure appears to be nothing at all, and thusly denied their rights to be on equal footing with its counterpart. But I can’t agree with this criticism. Castanviér fulfilled his function as well as he could; as a white, straight male of Christian, bourgeois heritage the “1” was the only bit open to him. Pulling the “0” off as a genuine expression of his own lived experience would have been laying claim to territories he had no right to. No, “0” could only have been authentically created by a woman. In Valedovna’s eminent hands, “0” came to represent Woman from the inside, as a container of thoughts and dreams and the unbroken original shelter of new life, instead of the circular “entry point” or disembodied breast it would’ve undoubtedly become if realized from the objectifying viewpoint of the heterosexual man.

Hihtad certainly made an interesting choice when pairing Mikkelsen’s convincingly argued piece with the controversial Professor Uda Nál’s “Regendering the 1”, making an entirely different case:

Interpreting the “1” as the Male is symptomatic of the half-educated, and the critics mindlessly repeating this first-year-student level take ought to read more Marle or Glenkiss instead of jumping on the first thing that crossed their mind. Castanviér was cleverer than all of them and his work deserves better. The choice of “1” is subverting hegemony, not reinforcing it. Hegemony rests in the negative space, between what we see and what we don’t see. What we do not see does not become an image, it is not looked upon, it is where we stand to look, as subjects, not objects. The “1” is marked, it is seen, it is what we refer to with a label instead of take as a given, immobile part of the background. Naturally, Man is “0” and Woman is “1” and what Castanviér did was to ironically point out what has always been pointed out, fooling the audience in the process. This is obvious, since “0” as male goes back to the beginning of life itself. “0” is emptiness, the Nothing, while the “1” contains. It is fertile, carrying promises of more, it beckons, leads forward, away from the stasis of the sterile “0” towards a future, towards higher numbers. It is the first step in what never ends. Both biblical and Freudian readings confirm the “0” as the true symbol for the Male. It is circular, without end or beginning, an avatar of the ultimate, perfected being, the fully developed ego that Freud’s Woman would never reach. The “1”, in contrast, standing on its edge, is unstable and precarious, potentially hysterical and ready to tip over. The feminine chaos it is, a constant source of male confusion and resentment ever since Adam, the “0” extraordinaire, by way of his rib (a straight line, could it be more obvious?) gave rise to 0’s first successor.

As I said, discussions of gender crop up in several of the book’s individual parts, and often there are interesting takes. Jonathan Steigerbaum-Holtz-Kamfer, critic at the Munich Contemporary Art Review, spends his twelve pages discussing the meaning of specifically Valedovna’s work as it relates to late capitalism and the coming obsolescence of emergent hierarchy as a result of forced competition (his argument is long and technical, but in short he argues that the “0”, unlike the “1” that Castanviér produced, stands outside the set of numbers used for ranking (which starts with “1” and goes up) and thus represents the desire and capability to withdraw from competition, comparison, and capitalism as a whole), but still manages an interesting aside on gender that offers yet another interpretation of these remarkably multifaceted works:

On the topic of sexuality, I can only react to Valedovna’s work with a sense of profound loss. “0” represents a missed opportunity of classically tragic proportions to subvert gendered expectations. With “0” she rearticulates both her own gender role and the heterosexist assumption that opposites belong together; she allows her choice and herself to be defined by the actions of a man, instead of, in a radical, bold move, replicate “1” altered in meaning by a transsubstantiation of sorts, through her own authorship, into a rejection not only of heteronormativity encoded into the nature of the bit itself, but her own imposed role as a subservient follower.

While gender might be the most prominent theme in the book as a whole, next to its status as the “symbol of the symbol” (Charles Grass again), not everyone shared the view that this is what bit art is fundamentally “about”. Noted cultural critic, philosopher and novelist Barnard Cornwallis III closes the collection a few poignant paragraphs:

Bit art embodies, in its most elemental form, that of bifurcation, the entirety of possibility, the mediator that turn potentiality to actuality and thereby creates it. To the human, possibility represents the reality of choice, of free will, that quality of spirit that renders us, ultimately, significant, to God and each other. On that score, the work is a devastating rebuttal of scientistic, mechanicistic reduction.

Castanviér and Valedovna, by making their choices, deftly invoked the existentialists by insisting on human choice when contemplated as a synecdoche of possiblity and contingent future — the defining feature of life — but choice when made as a symbol of death (they undoubtedly take inspiration from Frost and Plath here), as potentiality lives only a brief life, destined to collapse into mere actuality as if it never were, erasing the distinction that bit art aims to keep alive. That death binds us, it forces us into anguish, into guilt, contemplating what we must inevitably snuff out and wonder if it ever was. By this they superimpose another layer of duality by treating both the western religious tradition and secular existentialist thought as inevitable outgrowths of their work — this dual duality itself fractally mirrored in the structure of the works themselves, of course. “1” and “0”, in concert, seen as a whole, as yin and yang if I may be so banal, represent nothing less than what it means to be human.

Cornwallis couldn’t be more on point. The works of Castanviér and Valedovna encompass everything, and nothing — Light and Darkness, Existence and the Void, the Known and the Unknown, as well as the duality and tension between the expected and the unexpected so central to art.

They span the totality of conceivable phenomena, and thereby spawn a maximally fertile canvas on which an endless multiplicity of artistic experiences can enact themselves. They are truly remarkable achievements.

I’ve come away with a new respect for my friend after our dinner together. Not only has he got impeccable taste in art, he’s a magnificent cook too — I never knew stone soup could be so delicious. Next week I’m trying a granite recipe.

• • •

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