The Artefact Pathway in Contemporary Times

The Artefact Pathway in Contemporary Times


“The world has changed less since the time of Jesus Christ than it has in the last thirty years.”




An artefact is an aspect of the material world that has been modified over the history of its incorporation into goal-directed human action. By virtue of the changes wrought in the process of their creation and use, artefacts are simultaneously ideal (conceptual) and material. They are ideal in that their material form has been shaped by their participation in the interaction of which they were previously a part and which they mediate in the present (1996).


Artefacts are entities within the world that have been shaped with the purpose of achieving a certain effect. The concept of the desired effect is an idea that defines the particular artefact in abstract. But artefacts are real “stuff” and therefore instantiate that which is described in the abstract class of entities that can bring about the desired effect. As a result the artefact will associate its abstraction as an entity produced to bring about certain effects with the accidents


of its instantiation in tangible form. Therefore any artefact has existence simultaneously as both a concept of what the artefact instantiates, the idea, and as the tangible stuff of the instance of the particular implementation (1999).


The conception of a particular artefact is generated within a socio-cultural context that presents that prospective artefact as a desirable potential entity. The artefact idea is dependent on a combination of the imagination of the originator and the constraints imposed by the available technologies, the means known in the maker’s context to bring about particular effects in the world. Over time the effectual means known change as a result of discovery of properties of the behavior of entities in the world, and occasionally as a result of loss of knowledge, collective forgetting by the community of particular means of effectuation. As a result artefacts are part of the ongoing socio-techno-cultural scene of the setting in which they arose and they both contribute to the effectuation of outcomes that are regarded as desirable, by someone, in that milieu and the vocabulary of possible acts in the milieu (2003). Therefore artefacts are simultaneously means to both propagate in time and place and to effect change in the socio-cultural milieu in which they originated, and they can be used to effect change in contexts other than their context of origination.




Cultural Basis of the Artefact Pathway


In 1997, the Swedish ethnologist Orvar Lofgren invited scholars to study the ways in which cultural artefacts move through the spaces of national cultures. Research on culture, (1997) argued, should direct its attention to “the ways in which national differences become embedded in the materialities of everyday life, found not only in the rhetoric of flag-waving and public rituals, but also in the national trajectories of commodities”.


The place of these pathways within notions of cultural citizenship is not immediately apparent, but it merits consideration. In an influential definition of cultural citizenship,  (1996) suggests it is shaped by “negotiating the often ambivalent and contested relations with the state and its hegemonic forms that establish the criteria of belonging within a national population and territory”. The examples of negotiation which follow will seem trivial alongside the dramas of displacement and struggle which fill Ong’s ethnographic work. Let us see the realm of culture, nevertheless, as one in which each gesture (each new film or act of artistic activism, for example) presumes an implicit negotiation with the context in which it seeks to emerge. That context includes other people, artefacts and the structures of power or institution. Each such negotiation, in turn, functions as an act of transformation, if only by once more marshalling resources for an oft-repeated confrontation. Cultural citizenship is less about residing within culture than about the necessity of moving within it, and the negotiations and transformations which that movement entails.








Modernism refers to the overall art movement from the late 1800s to the early 1970s in which artists were primarily interested in how they presented their artistic ideas and issues rather than reproducing the world as it appears visually. This focus on the cultivation of individual style and artistic process led many modern artists toward an abstracted use of the elements of art.


Modernism highlights the paradigm shift within visual conventions, codes and signs. It breaks from the traditions of historic art and reviews visual arts practices (historical/critical/practical).The strategy of stylistic revisionism manifested in manifestoes and the establishment of the avant-garde best articulates the aims and outcomes of Modernity.


The development of the social sciences: psychology, Marxism and sociology brought about new considerations within the contemporary ideology. Emerging visual theories coupled with advances in technology gave rise to new possibilities in the production of art. Artists recognized and embraced the “culture of the new” and explored new terrains of artistic practice.  Modernism is also an examination of the personal and psychological experience and how it became the basis of artistic expression in modernism. Modernistic themes revolve around the philosophies such as art as a personal insight to revealing the mechanics of a new modern world, the development of the expression as a component in modern art, the human consciousness of modernism art as “personal worship” artists as heroes and the revolution of the nights: art and the unconscious.




Contemporary art is being affected, to a considerable extent, by lack of meaning, by extreme professionalism (“smart-art-scene” production, marketing of works skillfully executed to fit demands and expectations, etc.), by flat cosmopolitanism, or by repetition and boredom, among other problems. But at the same time we are going through a fascinating period of transition and reshaping of the whole system of art creation, distribution and evaluation at a global scale. Even if this process is happening slowly and in a “silent” way, its scope has no precedents.


In a process full of contradictions, new generations of artists are beginning to transform the status quo. They are doing so without manifestos or conscious agendas; just by creating refreshing work, by introducing new issues and meanings coming out of their diverse experiences, and by infiltrating their cultural difference in broader, somewhat more truly globalized art circuits. Naturally, this is not a smooth path, and many challenges and contradictions remain. Is the situation turning more rich and complex or is it being simplified by the necessary degree of standardization that a transcultural, international communication requires?


Globalization of Artefacts


A crucial tendency is the internal broadening of the so-called international art and art language through the intervention of a multiplicity of actors. If still instituted by mainstream orientations to an ample extent, this language is being increasingly modified and actively constructed by artists from the “peripheries”. This is crucially important because controlling language also conveys the power to control meaning. Therefore, more than a mosaic of multiple artistic expressions, what tends to prevail is a diversified construction of an “international art” by diverse subjects from diverse locations. This propensity opens a different perspective that opposes the clichés of a “universal” art in the centers, derivative expressions in the peripheries, and the multiple, “authentic” realm of “otherness” in traditional culture. Obviously, the very notion of center and periphery has been strongly contested in these porous times of migrations, communications, transcultural chemistries and rearticulating of power (2003).


In all corners of the planet we are witnessing signs of change in the epistemological ground of contemporary artistic discourses based not in difference but from difference. This transition could be epitomized as the gradual turn of direction in cultural processes that used to go mainly from the “global” to the “local”. In this sense, notions of hybridity and “anthropophagy” are beginning to be surpassed. Regional and international art circulation has dramatically expanded through a variety of spaces, events, circuits and electronic communications. Many of them have propitiated some of the problems just mentioned. A good example is the proliferation of unfocused small biennials all over the world, or the spectacle-oriented, mall-like big ones. The art biennial is the amazing case of a 19th century institution that is not only still alive in almost its original format, but blooming all over the world. This institution is part of a cosmopolitan, apologetic, exhibitionist, and mainly commercial spirit. In artistic and cultural terms biennials are often considered a failure, mainly in connection with their ambitious scale, their cost, and the invested effort. Anyway, more important than the art field’s expansion is its tendency to go beyond its own boundaries toward, on the one hand, personal and daily life, and, on the other, toward society and urban interaction.


Much of this activity is “local”: the result of artists’ personal and subjective reactions to their contexts, or of their intention to make an impact –cultural, social, or even political– in their milieus. But these artists are frequently well informed about other contexts, about mainstream art, or are also looking for an international projection. Sometimes they move in, out and about local, regional and global spaces. Usually their art is not anchored in nationalistic modernism or traditional languages even when based on vernacular culture or specific backgrounds.


The Brazilian modernists used the figure of antropofagia[i] (anthropophagy) in order to legitimate their critical apprehension of European artistic and cultural elements, a procedure peculiar to postcolonial culture in general. Antropofagia is not only a cultural strategy but also a metaphor that indicates the tendency to creatively appropriate alien cultural elements, which we find in Latin America since the early days of European colonization. Latin American anthropologists and critics have emphasized the creative and subversive aspects of these strategies of re-signification, transformation, and syncretism, and how they became a paradoxical manner of constructing difference and identity.


Latin American anthropologists and critics have emphasized the creative and subversive aspects of these strategies of re-signification, transformation, and syncretism, and how they became a paradoxical manner of constructing difference and identity.


Today, more and more identities and contexts concur in the artistic “international language” and in the discussion of current “global” themes. From, and not so much in, is a key word for contemporary cultural practice. All over the world, art is being produced more from particular contexts, cultures and experiences than “inside” them, more from here that here. By this operation artists are slowly and silently democratizing the dominant canons and power relations established in the international networks and markets. This new situation carries new problems, but points toward a very plausible direction for culture in a globalized postcolonial world. It propitiates a polysemic and actively plural international environment.






Another silent cultural revolution that is taking place nowadays is urban demographic growth in the so-called Third World. Just think that at the beginning of the 20th century only 10% of the planet’s population lived in cities. Now, one hundred years later, half of the globe inhabits urban environments. If urbanization was characteristic of the developed world, and rural life predominated in the Third World, by 2025 urban population will prevail in the whole planet


This urban revolution is chiefly taking place in the non-western world. To put an example, Mumbai’s population has quadrupled in thirty years. Obviously, cities are not prepared to afford such demographic shock, but, as  put it, “the city is built upon its systematic destruction”.[ii] Urbanism and architecture, as we have traditionally understood them, might be over (2003).




Utilitarianism of Artefacts


Artefacts are entities that are manufactured. Because of the investment of effort, time and other resources expended in the manufacture of any artefact the producers make artefacts with one or more purposes. The purpose, as seen by any user, of the artefact is something that is expressed in the actual use of the artefact to which that user subjects it. The purpose, as envisaged by the developers of the artefact is the framework of thinking that led to the definition of the attributes required of the proposed artefact. When artefacts are made to enable the bringing about of some effect it is necessary for the artefact to be structured in such a way that it is possible and practical for the user to relate to


the artefact in such a way as to bring about the intended effect at the will of the user. Artefacts are made to provide means for the user to gain an extension to the user’s personal capability that enables the user to bring about desired effects.


The user turns to the artefact to provide means to perform some class of action. The user has a purpose in seeking such means and that purpose is an outflow of some purposeful intent of the user. The issue in usefulness concerns whether the artefact performs the right kind of action to enable the user to achieve their greater goals. Artefacts may be used at a cost. The cost of use comprises the cost of access to the artefact and the marginal cost of use. The cost of access includes cost of acquisition, possessing and disposal. The cost of use of the artefact may be either financial or non- financial, such as effort. In many cases risk of untoward effects must be factored in as a cost of use. If the artefact does something that helps the user in the achievement of the user’s purpose sufficiently that the user’s view of the benefit derived exceeds the perceived cost associated with the use of the artefact, then the user will judge the artefact to be useful. Conversely, if the cost associated with use of the artefact exceeds the benefit the user may judge the artefact as not useful.




Many issues are at stake: conflicts, social and cultural articulations; dialogues and collisions between neologic urban cultures and rural traditions, religious clashes; chaotic, wavering and dissimilar modernizations; massive diasporas, outrageous poverty, social contrasts, traffics of all kinds, fanaticism, violence, terrorism, wars; shanty towns and their culture; global communications and huge zones of silence[iii][x]; homogenizing global tendencies and affirmation of differences; mutating identities, cultural and social mixtures, international networks and local isolation; cultural shocks and assimilation.