Volume Five, December 2004

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In all the arts there is a physical component which can no longer be considered or treated as it used to be, which cannot remain unaffected by our modern knowledge and power. For the last twenty years neither matter nor space nor time has been what it was from time immemorial. We must expect great innovations to transform the entire technique of the arts, thereby affecting artistic invention itself and perhaps even bringing about an amazing change in our very notion of art.
Paul Valery, "The Conquest of Ubiquity"

The history of 20th century art is the history of the revolt against any type of constraints: artists rebelled against restrictive delimitations and preferred to use anything available outside the conventional to create art from, be that their own body, pieces of cloth or other objects. They collated, produced multimedia objects or moved towards using video and staging happenings and internet projects. A generally valid tendency of the art at the end of the century is the extension of the concept of experiment and the questioning of traditional ways of expression as a whole. The most important change seems the use of technology to create art, which undermines the traditional idea of craft as it is known and established in the vocabulary. Nowadays, more often than not, an image from any source is imported in the system, it is altered by various means and becomes an accepted form of art. But, can art be created strictly by means of technology, that is, by means of a computer? And if so, which is the relationship between the new form, already accepted, form of art and the ones we still think of as the traditional ones?
Digital art is a field in continuous growth. A trend that started only some years ago with a few programmers and software developers who were creating algorithms for strictly practical purposes and reached today the level of sophisticated virtual realities and contemporary computerized animation that has penetrated the mainstream and the movie theaters, there was an intense exploration of various techniques which opened up a relatively new and unexplored field for artists, presenting numerous advantages and offering the added benefit of rapid dissemination of information. Digital cameras and PC’s can be found everywhere nowadays, and the means of creating digital images of all kinds have become widely accessible. The first few virtual art museums have been in existence for a while at this point, and they showcase artists from all over the world. Years ago, only a selected few had access to the internet, but today there are hundreds of thousands of artist sites online and numerous ongoing web projects; some present their images in a traditional manner, but numerous others practice the new form of art, which allows the infinite transformation of the work, with or without the cooperation and/or input of the public.
If at the beginning, images were scanned and then modified, in time, the aesthetic requirements became stricter, as the vast field started to be charted, and the part played by the computer became to create aesthetic effects instead of mimicking already existing ones. From computer graphics to animation and digital images, we can see now cybernetic sculpture, laser shows, kinetic and telecommunication events, virtual reality projects, as well as interactive art, created to be presented strictly on the Internet. The perception of this new art form relies tremendously on the participation and reaction of the art consumer.
Exactly as in the field of traditional art there are trends, one can identify trends in the field of digital art too. Even though ultimately all the artists produce artwork with the help of a computer and/or a digital camera, and it has already become a problem to produce a traditional gelatin silver print because the labs have folded or moved on to produce other types of prints due to market request and costs, upon a careful exam one can identify obvious technical and conceptual differences.
The primordial source, the image, is digitized and translated in the computer language. Then, it can be manipulated and it becomes practically endlessly changeable. The object becomes a conglomerate of pixels on a computer screen, ordering themselves according to various rules. At a more elementary level, some artists creatively appropriate fragments of images, creating new postmodern Objects, whose global meaning seldom equals the sum of their parts. They scan artwork produced by others, digitally collating everything, and integrating parts in a personal whole. Fragments of Picasso’s works can create a new Picasso painting, which he might have created himself in time; the style is easy to identify and remains a constant. Another category of artists paint in the traditional manner, then scan their own canvases and alter them using various image processing software. The images can be then printed on traditional printers, or the artist can produce a conventional negative. Sometimes, the image is printed on a different material, and the result can often be the impossibility to trace the technology employed in the whole process. There is also a category of artists who prefer to use the computer screen as a canvas and who ‘paint’ on the screen, using the mouse pointer as a brush to create “paintings” which then are printed.
Image appropriation is a very important issue for digital art. Is it possible, in a century of digital technology, to create a new aesthetic object without incorporating, to a certain extent, other aesthetic objects, subordinated to the new whole? We are all slaves of a certain cultural tradition, manifested more or less visibly in the creation of each artist, and certain images or symbols that function as icons are bound to surface in the creation process. Even taking into account the dependence on “quotes,” can we define as a new aesthetic object one which is new only due to the order of its parts? Is it the combinatory algorithm the one which creates the novelty, or does it take something beyond that? Or is the novelty maybe produced by the simple usage of technology? The more or less restrictive definition we give to this concept influences the point of view of numerous creators of digital art, who use ready-made or pre-existing images, which they combine, and claim that the combinatory algorithm is the one that creates the novelty.
Representational style has become preeminent in digital art, in spite of its abstract beginnings. The computer reactivates and recomposes iconic images. Some artists go beyond that, to produce fictitious narratives, where the artist may or may not be the main character. The images created by Mariko Mori (b. 1967) present futuristic scenes representing a meditation on the artificiality of contemporary culture, and Mori is the protagonist of these imaginary parallel universes. Jeff Wall (b. 1946) often reinterprets famous paintings in his compositions, also glorifying the anonymous moment, which thus becomes history. He takes advantage of the definition of photography as a documentation of reality, which is then presented in a different space, in order to create a personal history that has to be endlessly interpreted by the viewer who has to supply the absent data. His images are like the black box from the theory of systems: one sees the entry and the exit points, but what is in between has to be figured out by feedback. An image such as “The Dyke” by Ellen Kooi reminds of the pilgrimage scene from a famous novel by Salman Rushdie, raising troubling questions about the reality we can perceive by means of our own senses and asking us to repeatedly question everything we see, since there is always more to it than meets the eye, both in terms of meaning and structure. By disguising itself in photography, fundamentally a documentary medium, digital art questions the bases of human perception.
Often, artwork is produced to be shown exclusively on the internet. John F. Simon, Jr. created a grid of 1,028 squares; each unit modifies its color depending on the processor speed and the preferences of the user. “Every Icon” (1997) moves through all the possible shades of gray. Jason Salavon’s “Bootstrap the Blank Slate” stems from the idea of evolution; by means of the users, it “records, converts and stores the collective actions of its participants into an ever growing population of image-pairs – one genotypic and one phenotypic” (J. Salavon, 2003). A project proposed in 2001 by two young artists from Singapore, Charles Lim Yi Yong and Tien Woon, explores the relationship between physical space and cyberspace. The two used a GPS system in order to record their moves through the physical space; when getting close to a certain community, their movements trigger the appearance of web pages generated from that location. The purpose was to present the way physical communities overlap with the cybernetic ones. Charles Mullican presents a color grid, which can be modified by a simple click on one of geometric figures that compose it. Digital museums such as present numerous such examples.
Sometimes, the focus is on the technology used to produce the artistic object instead of the object itself. If the unaware user examines a digitally created sculpture, he probably notices a harmonious aesthetic object. Reading the metatext of the artist reveals the fact that the aesthetic object is the product of a unique and very sophisticated procedure. For example, a model moving is photographed, and then the images are superimposed in the computer, such as in the work of Michael Somoroff. A certain area is selected and recreated 3-D, by means of sophisticated software: the photograph thus becomes sculpture. Nobody can deny the beauty of the aesthetic object, which is the end result of all these procedures, but at the same time, it is tempting to say that the stress seems to have shifted from the final product to the technology which produced it. In order to function artistically though, technology has to be completely subdued to the artistic vision; otherwise, it is reduced to codes with no other significance than the practical one.
The new avant-garde of the beginning of the millennium is definitely interactive art, which requests the complete involvement of the viewer, and the most advanced level of this art form is to create virtual realities. From a practical point of view, the separation between the artist and his public disappears and is of no importance any more. All of a sudden, the viewer enters a world entirely different from his or her own, which simultaneously co-exists with it on a temporal level. Due to technological sophistication, few artists use this form, and projects are hosted mainly by universities and research centers. “Bar Code Hotel”, a project created by Perry Hoberman, recycles the omnipresent symbols of barcodes on each product, in order to create a multiple-user interface. The public influences and interacts with the computer-generated objects in a multi-dimensional projection, scanning and inputting information in the system; the objects have a semi-autonomous existence. Each user has 3-D goggles and a wand that allows him or her to scan and input. Each wand is a separate unit, and thus each user has a separate and unique identity in the computer universe. Because the interface is the room itself, ultimately an encompassing object populated with other objects and physical human being, as well as their virtual counterparts, the users can interact with the system as well as among themselves, and the barcodes represent the unique connection between the physical reality and the virtual one. The project raises numerous controversial issues, such as the decline of privacy, lack of individuality, serialization in contemporary society etc.
Among the various types of art online and certainly belonging to this avant-garde, there is also a type in which, by following a set of instructions, the user can in fact create something, which may or may not be an object, and the spatial distance seems to have no implication on his or her action, as long as the action itself is technologically possible. But then, how can one really be sure that this creation fulfills the condition of physicality instead of being just another image pulled from a distant database? In fact, this type of art questions the concept of Object itself. In the situation of ‘telepistemiology,’ or the study of knowledge acquired at a distance, the problem of reference is bound to occur.
Reference is an issue that semiotics has been attempting to clarify for a long time. Analytical philosophy states that reference is the relationship between an expression and the object it denotes. Fiction, that is art, in a more general sense, would thus lack reference according to such definitions. But discourse can also be about non-existent objects, such as “the magic mountain,” which stresses the fact that human thought does not restrict its processes only to reality. Once the two categories of objects, the real ones and the fictional ones, are established and defined, one must acknowledge that the fictional discourse refers to non-existing objects in the traditional meaning of the term. The situation becomes even more complex and maybe arbitrary when the denoted object itself is or may be a phantasm, or when its reality depends on the technology used to investigate and/or produce it. At the same time, once a reality is created, users tend to identify with it, establishing rules and environments, protecting their domain, and actually strengthening a consolidated referent that may not exist, which only proves the permanent human need to conquer, appropriate and tame unfamiliar space.
Helmut Grill created a whole installation, shown online by means of two webcams which broadcast low resolution visuals, which allows the user to produce a new object that can be covered with an acrylic resin. Sessions were scheduled, and a set number of users were able to log in and cooperate to create a new object. Of course, the whole inventory is under the control of the artist, but in the same time the viewer-user is encouraged to create a personal narrative, even though the artist controls its contents. But, how can the user be certain that what he controls is a real object or is dealing just with a database, updating itself in real time? It is a difficult question that cannot be answered without full disclosure from the artist.
Ken Goldberg talks about the difference between computer art and other forms of art in terms of their capacity to have as a final product an object, defined as something that has a mass and can be perceived by means of our tactile senses, that is, by their physical component. The result of the creative process of traditional painting or sculpture, as we know them, is a final product defined, among others, by physicality itself: it is something which can be touched, smelled and has a certain mass. It is something that digital art has still preserved in one way or another: a digital print is at the same time a collection of pixels on a screen, but once we hit “Print” it also becomes an object. In traditional art, it is not only the idea that comes across to the viewer, but also another component, the mastery of the artist to convey significance by means of his personal technique. Centuries of art history have been spent elaborating on chromatic aspects or on breakthroughs in terms of composition.
What if this physical component becomes less and less meaningful? What if art is able to shed this corporeality, not necessarily replacing it with something else, and show us meanings that have little or nothing to do with such an aspect? Ken Goldberg’s art, and not only his, is about this electronically-created mediation, and plugs into the postmodernist anxieties about distance, presence and absence, referentiality, individual loneliness and technological isolation and the “global society” with its way it might influence our every-day life. His robotic projects exploit the firm belief that the online “reality” must exist somewhere, in a space where tactile contact is possible, so that the user can relate to something physical instead of a sequence of pixels on a computer screen, and can actually communicate with it and alter it, appropriate it and create a familiar space. “Memento Mori” records the movements of a seismic fault, providing data visualization; “Tele-garden” is agriculture by remote control and implies full personal responsibility for the absent living space; “Ouija 2000” is a game board with a robotic arm controlled by the vote of the users, while “The Dislocation of Intimacy” is a detective game prompting the user to discover hidden objects revealing only their shadow, a philosophical concept that goes to the roots of human thought. Human beings seem still more at ease with tactile contact in order to relate themselves to the others and to the surrounding universe. The real question raised here is if this new ‘reality’ exists or not, and at the same time if this matters since its corporeal absence may influence us as much as its physical presence would. All that is left for us is to believe that our actions really shape something which exists in the physical dimension, and not only in our mind’s eye.
In direct connection with the aspects of physicality and non-referentiality, one has to remember that nowadays every-day events can only be grasped through the filter of subjectivity, which has immense implications: humanity takes refuge in mediated experiences, most often without questioning credibility aspects too much. This is probably the main reason of the fascination exerted by the ever-present surveillance cameras, reality shows and internet peep-games, which shrewdly pretend that mediation does not exist and provide immediate referentialization. Viewers tend to willingly ignore that everything evolves according to master-scripts allowing a certain degree of combinatorial straying but ultimately a limited number of options. Raising the question of mediation and the play presence vs. absence, here vs. there and now vs. then to the level of an art form is a strong statement about the postmodernist world, which could be described as a parallel space generated by snippets of images and information from various sources and marking, as Jean Baudrillard states, the shift from real to hyper real, which occurs when representation is replaced by permanent simulacra of a non-referential world.
History, be it past or contemporary, can only be grasped through the filter of subjective experience, and this is a larger cultural phenomenon with immense implications, especially in contemporary society. We have to remember that the way the public “lives” most events is by mediation, one of the fundamental secrets of any successful media enterprise. Wars, Bosnia, Iraq, and even 9/11 are relived vicariously by millions of people worldwide by means of the broadcast image and already exist beyond geography and time. It is typical for humanity to take refuge in living others’ experiences by mediation, to purge the disasters from the familiarity of the couch and with the aid of a remote control. Herein lies the fascination of reality shows, which shrewdly pretend that such mediation is reduced to zero and make identification easier. In fact, the mediation level is the same, but its perception is apparently objectified.
Digital art is often dependant on texts, because the inner logic of the usage of the whole range of digital means cannot be understood without the help of the artist’s metatexts. One has to wonder whether this type of aesthetic objects can have an autonomous existence, without the fundamental aid of the verbal, or if texts are integrated, and their absence could hinder a judgment of value. The aesthetic object has clearly transgressed the purely visual field and is situated at the interference of visual and textual. Texts are not parasitic and marginal any more, simple explanations without which art cannot be easily understood by an uneducated viewer, but are in an equal position with the visual aspects, having as a result a whole, generated by a symbiotic relation of interdependence between text and image. From a practical point of view, visual and textual fusion to create the new aesthetic Object, which has nothing to do with what we have been used to see or collect. How can one “collect” a web project? And, at the same time, has become less and less of an object in terms of its physicality. What is then the main difference between this new type of aesthetic object and all the others, created by more conventional means, except by the technology that helped produce it? Its main features seem to be the transgression of the visual field, by incorporating the text/texts, which structure the conceptual aspect, and the lack of its corporeality.
In the same way the global meaning of the text has never been a mechanical addition of the separate meanings of the words and then of the phrases which compose it, the global meaning of the new Object cannot be defined as an addition of the sets of visual and textual categories, which can be separated only methodologically, but are in a relationship of interdependence due to their dynamic. This meaning has become a creative fusion of the verbal and textual aspects, and an undermining of what is maybe the most important feature of “traditional art,” its physical aspect, to generate a new type of understanding, not correlated to rudimentary judgment, based on principles such as chromatic harmony or proportion. Instead, it generates a deeper understanding of the conceptual side of artwork and raises different sets of questions. Without the understanding of the conceptual aspect, independent perception of each component creates a truncated and incomplete image, which misses the dynamic complexity and the multiple layers of the new Object, the sensorial text, or the sensotext.
Any judgment of value cannot be based on the degree of technological sophistication of the tools, which remain, after all, just tools. No matter if art is created by traditional means or by employing a computer, the basic artistic idea, the integrative vision of the artist, is what matters and enables a valid and durable judgment. Otherwise, there is the ever-present risk of falling into the trap of technological fashion, and consider simplistic algorithms which produce generations of products having no value, as basic artistic ‘concepts.’ Of course, the degree of culture shared by the viewer plays an extremely important part, because apparently very sophisticated procedures are in fact possible by a straightforward command, but which requires familiarity with the software used to create the image.
Digital culture is inevitably invading our existence, so institutional acceptance of digital art is a predictable phenomenon. Its importance is in the process of being already acknowledged: already in 1998, the Guggenheim Museum in New York commissioned the web project “Brandon” of artist Shu Lea Cheang, a homage to the trans-sexual teenager Teena Renee Brandon, raped and killed in 1994. As any field that is still at the stage of exploring and defining the basic concepts, a number of theoretic and methodological clarifications are needed. A number of questions have to be answered: is interactive art, easy to appropriate by anyone who downloads it on his or her PC, real art, in the traditional meaning of the word? Maybe the term needs a new definition. Do quotes collaged together create a new object, or do they offer additional values to objects we have known for centuries? If we reverse the order of the parts, do we create a new whole or just a different algorithm? When are we going to see three-dimensional computer art? Is that going to mean that we’ll be back to creating a physical object? Or will it be maybe a different kind of physicality than the one we are used to, because it won’t be perceived by means of our tactile sense? And how does the sensorial text, function?
The establishment has always been suspicious towards the new artistic forms, because they threaten its supremacy, expertise and financial authority. Just like photography has become a universally accepted art form, and digital photo is a household term already, digital art is on its way to become so, drawing our attention to the fact that we live in a virtual reality that can be taken into possession by anyone who has a computer and an internet connection, and that boundaries between previously independent systems are becoming fuzzy, creating new structures. These new structures represent the first step in a direction that welcomes further exploration and confirms once again the fact that real value stems from the artistic vision, having little to do with the tools employed.

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