Pandemonium and Absurdity

A Two Part Essay

Art and Technology: The Hype, The Anxiety, The Technodeterminists and a few sober voices

I. Pandemonium:

Recently a well-known web developer, Mark Pesce, opined:

We need a Martha Stewart of Cyberspace. People wonder why all this feels so intellectual and rational, and machinic. It is because designers have not gotten in there yet to invest this world with their humanity. My finger is pointing at them. It is your turn. The technologists are done. We have given you a foundation, and now it is up to you to build on that foundation.

Mark Pesce

All the invisible digital clutter, messy electronic design, garish programmed complexity, atraditional technovelty, or aimless hyperstyle of 150 million+ web pages is just too much to take. Just imagine a pretty and soft interface into your hardware, one that lulls you into graceful surfaces unencumbered by excess or disarray, stylized to the point of vacuity, beautiful to the point of uselessness. How curiously interesting that one might consider a homogenous aesthetic veil to disguise the unadorned and depersonalized chaos of the omnivorous technosphere. How interesting too that the trend to personalization comes in the form of homey pages greeting users by name and containing preference-based welcome schemes registered to promote illusions of familiarity.

Assailed as a system harboring kooks, cultists, pornographers, nerds, and misfits, cyberspace itself has been under siege lately. Hailed as a communications revolution, a boon to education and commerce, an intricate solution to the dispersal of communities, the net is simultaneously decried as the bastion of anarchistic notions of really free speech. Curious that the hunt for data-smut and cyber-militias comes as the world political system teeters in the balance. Indeed, the collision of events in the public sphere with those of the cybersphere comes as the stability of international geopolitics, the global ecosystem, or identity politics, continues to crumble, catalyzed by confused notions of collapsing boundaries and monolithic techno-economies.

Yet, the conflict between the material and electronic realms is overshadowed by notions of substitution, in which the latter outdistances the former, in which connections substitute for communication, in which, as a new MCI campaign proclaims, there are "only minds." "Utopia,?" asks the invisible voiceover "No," comes the response, "the Internet." One wonders if Martha Stewart might recommend a bit of cosmetic psychopharmacology to spruce up the ataxia of an untidy unconscious. But more seriously, one might pause to consider the intentions behind pronouncements declaring universalization as a cross between consciousness and technology. One only wonders how this marketing strategy-cum-consciousness-industry-cum-theology might comport with a quip Marvin Minsky made in a talk several months ago. "Culture," he said, "is just bad science." This kind of patronizing arrogance, directed at what is conceptualized as 'unscientific' activity, perpetuates the presumed superiority of scientific study and the failure of culture to, well, measure up. Yet Minsky's remark also seems grounded in the most egregiously regressive approach to a culture reeling in the aftereffects of technologies whose 'triumphs' are dubious at best-including those that Minsky has supported. Afterall, techno-science sustains its ideological legitimacy on a future predicated on the shaky epistemological foundation of progress that is, at best, specious and, at worst, rapacious.

Surely the information age, born of scientific efficiency, mathematical precision, and nifty microelectronic forms, can find equitable motifs to signify complex cultural diversity, polite computerized interactions, or increasingly abstract exchanges. But the relationship between the systems, their presence, and their effects is not so easily rationalized. Ubiquity, after all, has its own relationship to invisibility. Increasingly indistinguishable, the design and discourse of the digital age comes with a kind of virtualization of matter. Doors become interfaces, improvements become upgrades, excess becomes backup and compression, acronyms becomes verbs (MOOing, MUDing, HEXing, RIPing, ...)-in short a dissolving of the boundaries between information and location, technology and agency. Minimized for efficiency, physical space is increasingly organized for maximum throughput and, more and more, takes on the appearance of microchip design; intricate, modular, connected by gateways, routing, processing, storage, a maze of nodes in which operations and behaviors co-mingle.

While the transformation of the order of space is adapted to fit into the ideologies of cyberspace, the glut of data (euphemistically known as 'content') propagates exponentially. Finding servers to host this overwhelmingly dormant data is simple, finding ways to distribute it are becoming dynamic in troubling ways. Indeed, the trend toward pushing technology into hard drives and onto screens has come to suggest that the force-feeding of information into the systems of users represents some form of discursive communication. This model, so reminiscent of the broadcast-cum-propaganda ideologies of radio and television, served to radically alter the experiential-and temporal-habits of a culture increasingly reliant on the tele-media. But the relationship between consumption, communication, and content is coming as a form of coercion. Less an information-superhighway than a one-way-street, the compulsion to distribute seems insufficient for a culture driven by the notion of exchange. So comes a hit-and-run metaphor ("push" technology) to propel the data-stream into awareness, omnipresence with a vengeance. And in this ecosystem of information, the pathology of accumulation overshadows or fulfills desires of all sorts, now realized in virtually limitless illusions, symptoms of satisfaction."

In Architectures of Excess, Jim Collins writes:

Imagining 'History,' outside of spatial relations is, of course, problematic, but imagining 'Space,' without any sensitivity to the narrativizations which also map the terrain as a lived environment produces a mode of analysis that comes closer to a geometry than a geography.

Jim Collins

Doubtless that the uprooting of the historical envelops much of the theorization, sociology, or politics of critical thinking about electronic culture, while the frenzy to inhabit the relentlessly rendered systems continues unabated. This crisis, where coercion joins compliance, in which the virtualization of the public sphere and its relationship with reflection, resistance, or legitimacy is challenged, comes on the heels of decades of development. Unhinging, uprooting, or exploding the myths of virtuality, the simulations of universality, or the pretenses of computability, without falling into regressive Luddism or the sustenance of slippery notions of modernity, often comes on the border between history and the future, in the contradiction between representation and experience, in the act of sublation that simultaneously evokes and assails the present.

II. Absurdity

Several months ago, I was asked to be on a panel called "The Computer in Art: Saviour or Antichrist." It was at The Arts Students League in New York. The ASL is the bastion of the analogue tradition: life drawing, figurative painting, formal training in color, etc. The premise was so wild, I could not refuse. The house was packed. The room smelled of linseed oil tinged with hostility.

With some anticipation the panel began. The startling question posed as the panel began was: "Why are artists afraid of computers?" Surely there was enough fuel to generate much discussion. I began by saying that the premise, "Saviour or Antichrist" was truly revealing and troubling. To attribute this sort of theological and anthropomorphic status to the computer was impossible. Computers have no agency. They can neither save nor corrupt. I talked briefly about the issue of social anxiety surrounding the role of computers in almost every aspect of our lives and that there just had to be a way to distinguish between art and industry, creativity and power, that the concerns about technology were well grounded, but retreat or outright rejection wasn't the best course. Too long to fully recount here, the rest of the panel (only one other person who used computers on the panel of 6) addressed a number of fascinating issues. Perhaps it would be fair to say a bit about the sense of anxiety that was revealed. Thus we might understand the so-called "artist from the East Village" for saying that computers themselves are "ugly and repulsive," or maybe we can understand the audible gasp from the audience when one panelist said that all that was required to produce a "Van Gogh" using a computer was to "click the mouse," he repeated it for emphasis, "a "Van Gogh!," and even perhaps forgive the very disgruntled "abstract illusionist" painter (as he identified himself) who offered to "get my coat" just after offering me a round of "fisticuffs."

Finally it came to an and and the usual Q&A positioning happened. A few hostile denouncements: "Computers will never produce a Tintoretto or a Rembrandt." Or a Van Gogh!, I added. "Painting is about guts." It was obvious that the issues of computers in the arts continues to have deeply troubling consequences. But more than the "click and make" assumption (and didn't this problem also hound photography's legitimacy as a bit more than "you press the button and we do the rest"?), was the general inability, or unwillingness, to confront a field assumed to be virtually omnipresent. This situation was no less complicated by the headlines, WWW, and TV coverage reporting the tragic "loss" to humankind by Gary Kasparov to IBM's RS-6000 (better known as Deep Blue). The panel reminded me, glaringly, that our assumptions about technology and art were not so pervasive, even while technologies were cascading over our attention.

But the issue of the acceptability of art using computers is not the only issue to be confronted. Still, after decades of work, the field of electronic art, is largely unhistoricized. Its relationship with art history, no less art criticism, lags (with a few exceptions) far behind its theorists, champions and, most importantly, a considerable number of first rate works. And while a full history of media art remains unwritten, a small number of attempts have emerged considering the World Wide Web as an extension of the gallery or museum, attempts that highlight the overall problems of curatorship, design, and cyberart.

Considering all the hype surrounding the network, a system less than ubiquitous and still enveloped in developing protocols that make stability dubious, a discussion of art comes with some very real problems. Surely, many assume, the net is an ideal environment for creativity and experiment! Yet the drive to both legitimate and aestheticize the activity on the web has come with a host of problems. Its deep roots in the structure of systems theory demand attention as to the social issue of media theory and the practices of communication, no less the economic interests shoveling the network mentality into "the marketplace of ideas." Its resistance to traditional categorizations, and more specifically the disciplines of sociology, psychopathology, and art, poses important questions about the tenuous assumptions that attempt to situate communication media at the center of an artistic renaissance.

In early May, Michael Kimmelman (critic for the NY Times) contributed to the general miasma of pseudo-criticisms of art on the world wide web.

So far mostly bad artists exploit the medium to get attention they otherwise couldn't: after all, the Internet is a way for them to circumvent the commercial system that has been in place in the art world for at least 100 years and that has acted (imperfectly) as the judge of what's worth seeing.

NYTimes, May 2, 1997

Applying spurious criteria from an 'imperfect' system is enough to defeat itself. Yet the issues of the evolving creative shift toward electronic media 'circumvent' more than market arbitration, but rather the very foundations of art system Kimmelman might attempt to sustain. Indeed the linking of communication and aesthetics, as has been clearly demonstrated by decades of experimental, installation, sound, and video media, has failed to comfortably fit into the linear categories of either art criticism or art history.

The central problem is that the network is antithetical to notions of curatorship and that its rich, and still evident, experimental state is counter to attempts to authenticate it as much more than a set of possibilities outside the good intentions of inexperienced "curators" (though there is a hilarious exchange in the "roundtable" that emerged from the exhibition PORT: Navigating Digital Culture that introduces terms like "advocates," "facilitators," or "choosers" to dance around responsibilities associated with curatorship). Yet the PORT exhibition, a cross between anarchy, indoctrination, and pedagogy, suffered its pretensions badly. The handout declared:

We see this as a ground-breaking exhibition and perhaps a model for future exhibition strategies.[...] Attempts at creating digital culture in an institutional environment have many aspects similar to that of presenting the artifacts of other cultures not intended for museum or gallery display.[...] We hope to provide a flexibility that will make alteration possible during the exhibition period and foster an environment of collaboration as well as self-education for the public.

Despite what seems unfamiliarity with the history and broad exhibition of media and web art (and its numerous predecessors), the loose affiliation of communication media with an anthropology of artifacts, or a no doubt well-meaning 'self-educational' model, there remains a distressing confusion here. Surely the attempt to retrofit the WWW into the realm of institutional art, its exhibition, and its theories seems ludicrous. What is so interesting is that the web dissolves the efficacy of such referential pseudo-authoritative neo-modernities and poses itself not as a utopian sphere of disaffection-as-liberation (as Kimmelman proposed), not as a phantom public sphere 'facilitated' into presence in confused aestheticizations, but as a conditional terrain of shifting ideas that disputes a concept of art and its tenuous hold on either timelessness or instantaneity.

Considering the strong interest in grounding the web in Deleuzian theories of rhizomatics, in slippery utopian notions of electronic biology, postmodern dispersal, or 'open-ended universality,' (as Pierre Levy suggests), a reasoned approach to the development of creativity on the web is slow in coming. Amid the chaos come a few sober voices:

With the coming of Net something new, shyly calling itself is emerging, now trying to define itself and experiencing its difference from other forms of creative activity. The problems of current period of as I see them are deeply rooted in a social determination of the notions "art" and "artist". Will we be able to overcome our egos and give up obsolete ideas of representation and manipulation? Will we jump headlong into realm of pure communication? Will we call ourselves "artists" anymore?

Alexi Shulgin

The present praxis on the Net is full of ... designer knowledge and experience and its representations ... However, there are other attractions in experience and experiences that elude or are even capable of reproduction ... For these unique events the networks are an impossible place ... Use the Net to strengthen local events but at the same time keep the option open to do without it.

Siegfried Zielinski

So what are we going to do with unlimited bandwidth? Is the fetish phantasy of full feed, full speed communication just another screen on which to project the utopia of an universal understanding between people? If everybody is a broadcaster, who will shut up and listen?

Marleen Stikker

Timothy Druckrey is a writer on art, media and technoscience and is based in NYC. (Timothy Druckrey)