Like all good names for art movements, “Flash Formalism” came about as a criticism of a perceived negative trend. That trend is the increase of work based on mathematical or algorithmic aesthetics, at first written with Flash and increasingly with Processing.
“Formalism” is a damning accusation for a critic to level at a work. Work which has only form, not content, is presumably vacuous. Certainly it has no critical potential. And yet the requirement that work have obvious, easily recovered content that critics can relate to their existing theories is a requirement of illustration, not critical content. That is, there’s a difference between illustrating critical theory and making something that stretches or even breaks critical theory. If the search-engine chic and in-faux-mation graphics of vaguely political net.art is more to criticism’s tastes, I’d say it’s criticism that has the problem.
Refusal of illustrative content is a political position. And given how complicit would-be net.art criticism is with existing power structures it’s actually a very critical position. It is a position that presents a genuine and useful challenge to and for criticism.
Like process art or the original computer art, both dating from the hardly apolitical 60s and 70s, Flash Formalism is not an art without social meaning. It is just a meaning that cannot immediately be reduced to sound-bite Poststucturalism. It is also a meaning that is not merely textual, another cardinal sin. It is mathematical.
Mathematics is not undemocratic: anyone can learn some maths. And it is not anti-individualistic: theorems and proofs are named after their discoverers. Alan Badiou claims that ontology is mathematics, and uses many mathematical concepts in his philosophy, so maths isn’t unreflective. Whatever narcissistic claims theory may make for “the text”, we live in a mathematically determined culture, not a textually determined one.
What the mathematics of Flash Formalism shows us is an analogue for an increasingly procedural social and aesthetic world. It shows us a simultaneous concretisation of and abstraction from it, a simultaneous engagement and an escape. No wonder it is so intractable for net.art criticism. It takes subtlety and imagination to see how this work relates to and allows a critique of where we are. You can’t just write about it.