The goal of this paper is to make observations and suggestions regarding artistic methods that address conditions hostile to deliberation. I hold up strikingly different works by Adrian Piper and Michael Rakowitz as equally promising models. In addition to Piper’s aforementioned My Calling (Card) #1, I refer to Rakowitz’s paraSITE (1998-ongoing), for which the artist designs and distributes lightweight, inflatable shelters for homeless participants. In addition to evaluating Piper and Rakowitz’s methods and strategies, I also point out counterexamples from the recent history of interactive art. When it comes to countering balkanization, many otherwise canny works reveal common methodological missteps. Before any discussion of method can take place, however, it is necessary to define the scope and mechanisms of our social fragmentation. The magnitude and seriousness of its challenge to artists demands elaboration.

Michael Rakowitz, Bill Stone’s <em>paraSITE</em> Shelter, 1998.

Michael Rakowitz, Bill Stone’s paraSITE Shelter, 1998. Plastic bags, polyethylene tubing, hooks, tape. Cambridge/Boston, MA. Courtesy of the artist and Lombard-Freid Projects, New York.

BALKANIZATION AND THE RISE OF ANTIDEMOCRATIC INTERACTIVITY
Approximately thirty years ago, an artist could have been reasonably confident that a spontaneous sampling of people on a busy street would produce an ideologically diverse audience. No longer. Researchers of demography and migration patterns have noted a clear pattern of self-segregation over the past thirty years. Studies by Richard Florida and Bill Bishop, for example, have recently shown that in the United States fault lines of education, income, age, race, religion, and tolerance of immigrants have been exacerbated by voluntary geographical clustering.2 One result is a remarkable political homogenization within local communities. In The Big Sort (2008), Bishop concludes: “In 1976, less than a quarter of Americans lived in places where the presidential election was a landslide. By 2004, nearly half of all voters lived in landslide counties.”3

The causes of clustering along geographic lines are deep-rooted, complicated, and multiple. What matters more for our purposes is that the pattern is self-reinforcing. As social psychologists have long understood, homogenous groups become, over time, more extreme in their points of agreement and less tolerant of difference. Simultaneously, the trend toward marketing goods and services to increasingly smaller sub-sections of the population—“niche marketing” or “precision marketing”—has evolved alongside geographical clustering, further aggravating its separatist effects.

Michael Rakowitz, Michael McGee’s <em>paraSITE</em> Shelter, 2000.

Michael Rakowitz, Michael McGee’s paraSITE Shelter, 2000. Plastic bags, polyethylene tubing, hooks, tape. 26th Street and 9th Avenue, Manhattan. Courtesy of the artist and Lombard-Freid Projects, New York.

The key to exploiting social divisions is media segmentation.4 Pivotal to that segmentation are marketers’ tactics of “tailoring.”5 When initiated in the 1980s, tailoring was limited to encouraging customer loyalty through incentive programs that customized prices, opportunities, and information to individuals. Since the 1990s, tailoring has expanded dramatically, becoming paradigmatic of contemporary communications. The popularization of Internet usage has made tailoring an exponentially more powerful tool of media segmentation. The interactivity of the Net makes it easy and commonplace for people to tailor information and products to themselves while simultaneously being the subjects of targeted marketing.

Footnotes

  1. Richard Florida, The Flight of the Creative Class: The New Global Competition for Talent (New York: HarperCollins, 2005), especially the chapter “Creative Class War.” Florida’s focus in this chapter is on the growing geographical divisions by class, including income, education, and cultural ethos. Bill Bishop also discusses evidence of an increasing and largely voluntary geographical divide, but focuses on geographical clustering by political ideology. Bill Bishop, The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart (Berkeley and Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2008). In the introduction and the chapter “The Politics of Migration,” Bishop presents evidence from a variety of demographic studies.
  2. Bill Bishop, 6.
  3. The decline of so-called “general-interest” media in recent decades is not simply a story of diversification. As Michael Weiss demonstrates throughout The Clustered World (2000), an insider’s look at the evolution of one of the then largest precision market research companies, sub-cultural populations do not just reflect but further amplify their differences through specialized consumption, including of media, and marketers harden those distinctions further by crafting increasingly fine-tuned sub-cultural appeals. Michael Weiss, The Clustered World: How We Live, What We Buy, and What It All Means about Who We Are (Boston, New York, and London: Little, Brown, and Company, 2000). Weiss is a neutral observer in his story of Claritas, Inc., the geo-demographic research company started in 1974 that developed a means of analyzing populations according to “lifestyle clusters.”
  4. Tailoring is defined and treated in depth by Joseph Turow in Breaking Up America: Advertisers in the New Media World (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1997), especially in the chapter “Tailoring Differences.”
Further Reading