The Alchemical Portrait

Magic, Technology and Digital Imagery

"If I have practiced alchemy, it was in the only way it can be done now, that is to say without knowing it." Marcel Duchamp

Alchemy is the art of transformation. It is an art that its adherents mistook for science, and that is what doomed them to obscurity when science shook off its mysticism. The kind of digital portraiture we are seeing from artists like Mariko Mori, Pae White, Nancy Burson and Inez Von Lammesverde depends for its power on transformations, both apparent and obscure. Mutability is the electronic portrait's stock in trade, and its very protean shape shifting fits our collective contemporary narcissism to a tee. We are no less enamored of ourselves than we ever were, but we prefer mirrors over which we can exercise control. Reflection is not enough, as if it ever were. Every age seeks its own perfected image; we require not a single ideal, but rather a consumer's choice, a supermarket of perfections.

As we move into the era of the Post-Human - replete with genetic engineering, cosmetic surgery on demand, psychotropic behavioral modification, and the unceasing melding of the corporeal, the mechanical and the electronic - why should our portraiture not keep pace? Hence this show's proliferation of subtle shifts, outright impostures and invisible compositings. Yet, even when we are not sure how these images differ from the _real_, they induce a twinge not unlike the pain of a phantom limb. Like photography in the 19th century, electronic imagery is a constant irritant, a challenge to inherited epistemology . We have another generation to live through before the kinds of digital portraiture will become naturalized.

Just as interesting as our reception of these images are our attitudes towards the processes of their creation. If alchemy was art mistaken for science, then today, much electronic imagery is science masquerading as art. The technic (that which pertains to art) is being marketed as art itself; softwares bear titles like Painter, Composer, Creator. These are not simply descriptions, they are promises: purchase the products and tap the power of the artist. As public support in the United States for actual artists wanes there is a paradoxical increase in the desire to take on their mantle. People have taken seriously the computer's potential to create as well as consume spectacle. And yet they are not content to have their efforts labelled merely "creative." Thus, scientists noodling about with imaging systems, hobbyists splicing home videos with non-linear editing softwares, and those who use their computers to generate Mandelbrot diagrams, throw together sound files, and morph one image into another - all want the honorific of artist.

It is art school cant that Duchamp initiated a century in which the definition of art went up for grabs. In the 1950s, the great American writer Philip K. Dick defined art as "creative work, directed towards the service of an internal standard." [3] The question becomes, then, what are the internal standards towards which an electronic hyperaesthics should strive? These standards are most assuredly not those of science, for there is absolutely no reason for art to aspire to verifiability (which is the crux of the scientific method). Instead, and in a roundabout way, the digital arts may look back, reinvigorating alchemy's arcane approach to the image.

The Great Work, as alchemists referred to their art, had a richly powerful visual tradition. Alchemists imbued their complex pictures with information - their illustrations of kilns and dragons, elixirs and kings were redolent with gnosis. Alchemy, as I have noted, has always concerned itself with multiple transformations: both the extrinsic (turning lead into gold) and the intrinsic (stripping the soul of its Adamic impurities). The alchemists danced between the danger of knowledge and the promise of power: they coded a grail of transcendence. As the _Rosarium philosophorum_ states ::

"Wherever we have spoken openly we have (actually) said nothing. But where we have written something in code and in pictures we have concealed the truth."

Artists who plan to portray the human through the regime of the digital , then, should not play into industry's inevitable cycles of upgrades and technological improvements in the hopes of attaining an ever more subtly nuanced realism; the internal standards of electronic arts should be more coded. Transcendence, if it is even possible, demands the acquisition of oblique knowledge and pleasures more subtle than that of recognition.

Peter Lunenfeld, founder of mediawork and Director of the Institute for Technology & Aesthetics (ITA), teaches at Art Center College of Design, and is the editor of The Digital Dialectic: New Essays on New Media, forthcoming from the MIT Press.

An earlier version of this essay was included in the catalogue of the Huntington Beach Art Center's catalogue, The Unreal Person: Portraiture in the Digital Age (1998), for the show of the same title curated by Irit Krygier. (Peter Lunenfeld)