published: October, 2013
This essay was written for the Post-Digital research conference in the Kunsthal Aarhus, which was a collaboration between Aarhus University and the Transmediale festival in Berlin.
If the interest in the post-digital proofs anything, it is that the usefulness of the digital as a discursive element in analyzing the impact and place of technology in society and culture is waning. Digital technologies on the other hand only grow and proliferate. This raises the question: why do we need or want to discuss matters in terms of a post-digital condition if digital media do not seem to loose ground by far? I look at this issue in the context of art. Here, the digital realm tends to be perceived as screen-based. This tendency is validated by popular approaches in media art, most notably that of Lev Manovich (3). The computer however started out completely ‘screenless’, and today the miniaturization and new applications of digital media bring new forms of ‘screenlessness’ (Van Kranenburg 6). A screen-based analysis and view of art in this context literally glosses over the issues in this area.
A problem here seems to be the visual impermeability or spatial dispersion of the works in question. Rudolph Arnheim offers a possible basis for an overarching theory for a new visuality in his book Visual Thinking (274). Arnheim describes how a non-retinal way of seeing exists in science, where the knowledge of the existence of events, structures and objects often precedes or even constitutes their visibility. By applying this visualizing method to the sculptural use of hardware, code art, and conceptualist practices in complex digital environments, I try to, at least in part, include the inherent instability of the works in question in a new view of art in the expanded digital field.
At the same time there is a level of abstraction in all practices of art, including the examples used here, which cannot be described in terms of a visualization derived from scientific knowledge alone. The perceptional model adapted from Arnheim therefore needs additional analytical tools to further explore specific works and practices. This however will not be discussed in this text, but I want to address it in my talk. Expertise in specific fields and sub-fields from both the media art field and the contemporary art field is necessary to complete any picture of art in the expanded field of digital art: the post-digital sphere.
The Bright and Blinding Screen
In her book Where Art Belongs the art writer Chris Kraus puts what she calls ‘digital forms’ in the same realm as video (119). She is but one of many critics and theorists that describe art in the digital realm in terms of the image and the screen (Bourriaud 69; Foster 105; Jameson 110; Krauss 87; Virilio 14; Rancière 18). The manner in which it is described is almost always negative. Computers are described as the present day epitome of Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle, or as problematic because prolific image copy machines.
This superficial view of the computer and digital media in general is supported or at least barely countered by influential writers from the media art field. Lev Manovich’s bestseller The Language of New Media describes the computer almost entirely in terms of cinema. Even the chapter called The Operations, after a chapter on screens, solely focuses on image editing and image sequencing (117). In his book The Interface Effect Alexander Galloway starts off with a respectful yet also critical analysis of Manovich’ cinematic approach of new media. Galloway takes his criticism of this approach further by connecting it to another popular approach, that of remediation (20). The theory of remediation draws a straight line from medieval illustrated manuscripts to linear perspective painting to cinema to television and lastly to digital media (Bolter, Grusin 34). The radical transformations brought on by digital technology are explained only by stating it ‘can be more aggressive in its remediation’ (Bolter, Grusin 46). Galloway however observes that, far from remediating a visual language like that of cinema, the computer ‘remediates the very conditions of being itself’ (21). In terms of art practice this means that digital media remediate art as is, with all its complexities and contradictions. Digital media however do so from their own form of Dasein, which comes to be through their design and application.
The focus on the screen therefore is not a problem produced by digital technologies per se. To find a possible cause and solution for this problem it seems more appropriate to approach it as a continuation and amplification of issues in art criticism and cultural theory at large. Though a variety of approaches to discuss art involving digital technologies exists (Blais, Ippolito 17; Cramer 8; Popper 89; Bazzichelli 26; Holmes 14), “no clearly defined method exists for analyzing the role of science and technology in the history of art” as a whole (Shanken 44). Edward Shanken notes how after the heydays of modern art historians stopped describing technological developments in art (45). In this period especially digital technologies have prospered exponentially. This change in art historical method has created a lack of analytical tools to grasp the realities of art in the age of digital media.
Visualization of Highly Complex Forms
The illusionary malleability and disappearance of digital media in the remediation of being Galloway describes, should not be interpreted as digital technologies having no form. What Galloway’s Interface Effect means for art is that the art object exists within a complex system of elements that are technological and political at once. He speaks of an ‘anti-anthropocentrism of the realm of practice’ (22). Galloway further describes the overwhelming problematic of visualization of data and digital environments in general, and calls for ‘a poetics as such for this mysterious new machinic space’ (99).
The merging of machine and, in this case, art practice means we need a method that is simultaneously applicable to both. Within a context that is deeply connected to the scientific realm applying a form of visual thinking described by Rudolph Arnheim seems fitting. In his book Visual Thinking he describes various forms of visualization, one of which is that of scientific knowledge (274). It boils down to ‘seeing’ things you know are there but which cannot be seen by the naked eye. It is not a form of imaginative mental construction of unreal events or phenomena. Arnheim calls such visualizations ‘models for theory’. He describes examples of how such models appear in nature sciences and geometry. Even if he uses examples from the hard sciences, his approach of scientific visualizations is largely psychological (275). He explains how every scientific model of an ‘invisible’ event or object is never static or stable, as it is based on a mixture of observation, experience, and psychology.
As an illustration: Gallileo not only had to battle church dogmas. He also had to constantly challenge his own, learned modes of perception, and in the end he did not completely succeed. Gallileo refused to accept planets rotated around the sun in ellipses rather than in circles. Arnheim quotes Erwin Panofsky pointing out that ‘the ellipse, the distorted circle, “was as emphatically rejected by High renaissance art as it was cherished in mannerism” (278).
Application of Theory – Post-Screen Views of the Digital
I now try to apply Arnheim’s notion of models for theory to art, to see beyond the screen of the spectacle. Literature on art in this context shows a variety of forms, of which a poetic use of code (Baumgärtel 11; Goriunova, Shulgin 4; Arns 194; Cramer 8), a sculptural use of networks (Popper 181; Weiß 175; Shanken 140), and conceptualist practices (Greene 9; Holmes 20; Hand 10) are examples that show the heterogeneity of the field. I concentrate on these, while being aware of the interdisciplinary character of each work in these areas, and of the physical and conceptual overlaps between them. What all have in common is of course a connection to the digital field. This means all include some form of application of, or reference to, executable code.
Visual Thinking in Action
Various authors have described the deep entrenchment of code in culture and society, and its defining role in new systems of power (Galloway, Thacker 30; Galloway 54; Wark ). Others have emphasized the generative aspect of code, and its prominence outside institutional realms (Arns 201; Goriunova, Shulgin 6). Some even go as far as describing code art as a virus, or as an antibody against a sick culture (Blais, Ippolito 17). What is clear from all descriptions of code art is that it cannot be represented on a retinal plane in its entirety, or in its full capacity. Code as a written text, deep within a computer or presented on screen or paper, encompasses a potential activity that cannot be grasped from a literal reading or retinal observation alone. Code is perceived through its products, as screen-based results of software, or through its effects within a physical environment, or both.
According to Arnheim, in a scientific form of visualization ‘all shapes are experienced as patterns of forces and are relevant only as patterns of forces’ (276). The shapes he refers to do not need to be physical. ‘The kind of highly abstract pattern I have been discussing is applicable to non-physical configurations as readily as to physical ones, because there again the concern is with the pattern of forces, a purpose best served by exactly the same means’ (Arnheim 279-280). Pictures, models, or visualizations developed from interpreting these patterns of forces depend on former experiences and intellectual preconceptions of the beholder. To illustrate how this can play out: whereas Jacques Rancière describes the future of the image and representation in terms of ‘machines of reproduction’ (9), Galloway looks at the same surface and sees what he calls The Interface Effect, which is an effect ‘of other things, and thus tells the story of the larger forces that engender them’ (preface). One sees a copy and editing tool, the other a change of what images represent.
A similar conclusion could be drawn for conceptualist practices in the expanded digital field. Without recognition of the influences and driving force of digital technologies within them, an analysis easily misses the point. The reason I call particular practices conceptualist is that they largely manifest themselves in some form outside of digital media, yet their shape is defined through these media. The technology seemingly disappears in it, it ‘remediates the very conditions of being itself’ (Galloway 21). Works range from performance and activist art to sculpture, painting, video, and prints (Holmes 47; Olson 59). Works in this highly diverse group of practices seem to have three things in common: they use the Internet as an information or material resource; they use the Internet as a community space; and they use digital media for publication purposes (Bazzichelli 28; Goriunova 29; Holmes 66; Hand 47). Some works, such as that of the Yes Men/rtmark, are described in books about net art and digital art (Baumgärtel 106; Stallabras 8; Greene 92; Paul 209). More object-based work, like that associated with the ‘Post-Internet’ label, still largely needs to find its way into literature. Marisa Olson describes the extensive use of found photography in Post-Internet practices in terms of a revaluation of ‘portraits of the Web’. ‘Taken out of circulation and repurposed, they are ascribed with new value, like the shiny bars locked up in Fort Knox’ (59). Like code art, these two extremes, of activist and object-based art, can only be understood fully from a perspective that takes note of those ‘patterns of forces’ that give them their power.
The visualization of digital networks in art requires an explicit visualization of hardware as well as of information flows. In network art installations hardware is essential, and most of it is far beyond sight. Any Internet connection quite easily runs halfway around the world (Terranova 44). The myriad of specific operations to realize an Internet connection happens almost entirely automated (Weiß 36). It runs across different national borders in ways largely beyond our control. Internet connections therefore are not neutral, straightforward couplings of machines. Yet Internet connections in works of art are mostly discussed in terms of technology, virtual spaces, and telepresence, and seldom in terms of visualization of the mixed physical and techno-political essence of the network (Goldberg 3; Popper 363; Shanken 32; Paul 93). I think this is a strange oversight. By making an Internet connection part of a decentralized installation or performance, an artist creates an installation that involves the temporary application of a shared, semi-public infrastructure. By interpreting the ‘patterns of forces’ involved conceptually, spatially and physically, a larger and less abstract view of this installation emerges.
I realize I walk a tightrope when I suggest using Arnheim’s theory of scientific visualization to art. Arnheim has been accused of having a highly formalist approach to art (Fox, NY Times). The chapter Models for Theory in Visual Thinking however describes a visualization method that leaves more room for subjectivity and instability than one would expect. Arnheim extensively describes the subjective development of scientific models (279). This development also involves a change over time and an ‘open-endedness’. There is no final outcome, since any visualization in this context concerns phenomenal events that largely escape the eye, and will undergo constant re-assessment. I am not proposing to follow Arnheim’s ideas to the letter. I propose to take the concept of a scientific visualization, and adapt it to art that involves structures, systems, or processes that are too large, too dispersed, or too small to see with the naked eye.
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