The New Minimalism

In May of 2010, a Parisian art auction sold an Alexander Calder mobile entitled "Pour Vilar" (circa early 1950s) for 2.3 million euros, a record sale for a piece by the now famous American sculptor. I begin with this anecdote because it was the first news item to appear in my Google Chrome search today when I entered "minimalism" and "Calder."

I ran the search to find an image of a Calder mobile that I saw at the MOMA a few years ago, and that I was reminded of this afternoon when I met with a young blogger who writes on the topics of minimalist living and minimalist work. The central tenet of his blog—which is in conversation with such sites as Zen Habits and Rowdy Kittens—is as follows: by shedding possessions and reducing consumption one can become "location-independent" while enjoying a rich life (in material and nonmaterial ways).

Yet, the use of "minimalism" to describe such project blogs gives me pause. Minimalism has a very particular history as a concept. First, it does not appear in English until the late 1920s. Second, its dictionary meanings are restricted to avant-garde movements within mid-century art, architecture, design, music, and literature: "The practice of using the minimum means necessary to achieve a desired result; A style of painting associated with the Russian-American artist John Graham; A movement in sculpture and painting originating in the mid 20th century and characterized by the use of simple, massive forms." Finally, minimalists tended to make extensive use of materials that were anything but minimalist in their production. Consider the aluminum rods used in Calder's mobiles; the plywood, concrete, and plexiglass that constitute Donald Judd's work; or, more recently, the enormous sheet metal pieces of Richard Serra. The end result in these cases is a spare, pared-down aesthetic in which empty space plays as important a role as objects in creating a work of art. But looming in the background of most minimalist work (think of John Cage's use of tape recorders) are the manifold effects of heavy industry: steel mills, extraction mining operations, manufacturing plants, and the list goes on. It is the invisible footprint of minimalism, I would argue, that provided an impetus to the countervailing movement known as land art that emerged in the 1960s.

Image removed.

This observation suggests that minimalism might be re-examined through the lens of contemporary cradle-to-cradle design, which seeks to track and to mitigate the entire life cycle of any object. On this view, we would think about the mills and mines that produce raw materials for minimalist art as integral to the final work. An attention to minimalism's supply chain reveals that the movement depended crucially on industrial capitalism, even though the features of minimalist art rebuke what e.e. cummings once called the "rococo" quality of American consumer culture.

It seems that the current interest in minimalist work and living relies on a similar web of heavy industry. This point leads me to two questions that I've been mulling over for some time: What is the carbon footprint of the world wide web? And why is the massive infrastructure supporting digital culture a topic that almost no one is talking about? [For important exceptions, see this recent Slate analysis of YouTube's energy requirements.] Many people are well aware of the vast server farms in places like The Dalles, Oregon that make billions of blog posts, Facebook status updates, YouTube video uploads, Twitter feeds, and email exchanges possible each day. And many people are also aware of the e-waste islands that grow daily offshore––graveyards for 1st, 2nd, and 3rd generation laptops and smart phones (including my own, I should be quick to acknowledge). And many technology companies, from Goolge to Apple, have high-profile green campaigns that emphasize their investments in wind and solar energy and in sustainable manufacturing practices. That said, very few people are talking about how much energy digital culture consumes every day (and how much of it runs off coal), or about where servers are manufactured and who is manufacturing them, or about what happens to those same servers when they die.

Put differently, there is an increasingly complex backend to the web 2.0 world that begs the question of whether the new minimalism is, in fact, minimalist? More precisely, what does minimalist work and living mean if, to be economically viable, the practice depends on blog platforms, streaming content, and twitter feeds? This is not to say that I'm unsympathetic with the project of twenty-first-century minimalism. Far from it. It is only to raise the question of how this new form of minimalism—a decidedly popular form—might make visible (rather than sublimate) the many industries that make digital media and virtual work possible.

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