Who forgot to plug in the audience?
The return of aesthetics in a post-digital paradigm
In relation to art and aesthetics the difference between the digital and the post-digital designates two different ways of ascribing meaning to concrete works of art – two different paradigms of thinking about art. As this article will demonstrate, the digital paradigm is governed by a technological point of departure, whereas the post-digital one is characterized by a focus on experience and use. Both paradigms have their pros and cons, depending on what dimensions of the work of art one wishes to investigate. By drawing on the ideas of especially Immanuel Kant, Dominic McIver Lopes and Domenico Quaranta, this articles analyses and compares how the two paradigms relate to the concept of aesthetics.
Why focus on aesthetic experience in the first place? Why not just investigate and interpret the concrete works of art? The radical answer to that question is: Because the work of art in itself does not exist. By this I mean that whenever we assume that we talk about a specific work of art, we really talk about a number of different, culturally constructed phenomena depending on who ‘we’ are. Whether we take as an example a piece of net art or a marble sculpture it can be considered, for instance, as pure conceptualization on the side of the artist (Kosuth), as mimetic representation of reality (Plato), as an evolutionary step in human knowledge (Hegel), as significant form (Bell), as created by geniuses (Kant), as an act of communicating feelings from the artist to an audience (Tolstoy), as good or poor social/cultural critique (Adorno), as in-distinguishable from the artist’s life (Vasari), as a text open for reading bearing no relation the artist (Barthes), as bourgeois/commercial ideology (Berger), as that which is accepted by the art institution (Dickie, Bourdieu) – not to mention the original/copy question, first raised by Walter Benjamin, which has been reinforced in the era of digital technology.
Therefore, it is impossible to essentially pin down a specific work of art as something that exists as one clear-cut object/phenomenon/process/action/relation ready for ‘pure’ interpretation and analyses. In other words, all discussions on concrete works of art are based (sometimes unknowingly) on certain theoretical points of departure – even if the focus of the discussions themselves are down to earth and do not seemingly involve theory.
Hence, the fact that I insist on focusing on aesthetics in following comparative analysis of the digital and the post-digital paradigm, is not because it is the right way to consider those paradigms, but because it is – as the article shall demonstrate – a fundamentally relevant issue that the digital and the post-digital paradigm approach differently. Before moving into more detailed analyses of the notion and role of aesthetics within paradigms of the digital and the post-digital, a few overall comments (which will be elaborated later) on their overall diachronic and synchronic relationship are in place: To some extent the paradigms follow chronologically in the sense that the digital paradigm emerged vaguely with the avant-gardes’ of the early 20th century, and then had its most profound period in the 90s up till the beginning of the millennium when the post-digital paradigm gradually took over. I prefer, however, the notion ‘paradigm’ to ‘period’, since to a very large extend we are dealing with two fundamentally different ways of comprehending aesthetics related to digital technology, which, therefore, run parallel.
Art and aesthetics of a digital paradigm
The digital paradigm’s notion of aesthetics is characterized by two things: Border crossing and a technological focus. The border crossing is to be understood in the sense that the digital paradigm challenges the borders between traditional institutions and disciplines, and, hence, does not seem to differ between ‘aesthetics’, ‘art’, and ‘culture’ insofar as, overall, these terms are used more or less synonymously to describe new experiments or practices that make use of digital technology. As an example of this characteristic Stephen Wilson’s book Information Arts (2002) carries the subtitle: Intersections of art, science, and technology. Wilson states that ‘Information Arts can be seen as an investigation of these moving boundaries [between art and techno-scientific inquiry] and the cultural significance of including techno-scientific research in a definition of art.’ (Wilson 2002, 18).
A significant achievement of the digital paradigm is its ability to transgress traditional borders and look beyond the narrow institutional confinements of Art with a capital A when focusing on aesthetics – thus, it is possible to consider a theme like, for instance, surveillance from a number of different points of views (culturally, technically, artistic, politically etc.). In this sense, the digital paradigm is in accordance with classic Kantian aesthetics according to which aesthetic judgement of taste is applicable to all sorts of phenomena from different domains and not just to art. (Kant 1790, § 48)
Closely related to the digital paradigm’s refreshingly unorthodox border crossing, the second characteristic of the digital paradigm is that digital technology in itself becomes the centre of attention in the digital paradigm. This means that digital technology and media are the elements that fixates the meaning of the paradigm – or constitutes it – whereas art and aesthetics do not play central roles. Therefore, when art or aesthetics are considered from the point of view of the digital paradigm they are subsumed – along with other cultural/social/political modes of expression – under the primacy of digital technology and not as governing concepts in themselves.
On the surface, it would seem that aesthetics as understood within the digital paradigm relates to Kantian aesthetics in the same way Visual Culture studies relates to the discipline of Art History: By proposing a radically different point of perspective on a well known subject matter while at the same time using this new point of perspective to expand the scope of that subject matter to include phenomena (like traffic signs, fashion, reality shows etc.) that are not included in the original discipline of Art History. Thus, within the digital paradigm, the notion of ‘aesthetics’ covers a very vast area from recommendations for webpage design, to copyright issues related to music software, to wearable technology, to computer games etc., while aesthetics in the classic sense of the philosophy of the beautiful, the sublime, art etc. plays a minor role. As Carsten Strathausen puts it in 2009:
‘The nascent aesthtetics of new media is variously names “rational aesthetics”, (Claudia Gianetti) or “info-aesthetics” as well as “post-media aesthetics” (Lev Manovich) or “techno-aesthetics” (Peter Weibel) […] “Rational,” “info-,” or “techno-“ aesthetics is thus informed by the history of science and engineering rather than that of philosophy and politics. Its heroes are Boscovich, Boole, Turing, and Bense instead of Aristotle, Kant, Hegel, or Adorno.’ (Strathausen, 59)
What Strathausen points to and criticizes is that, what he terms ‘new media’ and this articles terms a ‘digital paradigm’, actively proposes a radical replacement of one discourse of aesthetics (the classic) with another, new discourse which is closely tied to the subject matter of digital technology. Hence, aesthetics becomes identical to the subject matter of the work (which, in the digital paradigm, is identical to technical properties) instead of being a philosophical perspective applied to a work (and its subject matter, its technical properties etc.).
Survey books on new media art or digital art are organised either as descriptions/analysis of individual artists or works or according to technological subgenres like ‘video art, ‘network art’, ‘interactive art’, ‘telepresence’ etc. (see for instance Rush, Giannetti, Tribe & Jana, Paul, Shanken, Wilson). Consequencely, in a digital paradigm analyses and debates on the role of new technology in art have (had) an overall essentialist character in the sense that questions asked basically centres around: what is “interactive”, or “networked”, or “digital” (etc.) art?
Though the above questions are good and relevant, they lack one important component that it is highly appropriate to investigate in a post-digital paradigm, that is: According to whom? Or in other words: From which specific subject position are such questions asked? From the position of the artist, the curator/critic, the user, the implied audience or the actual audience? By not explicating which subject positions are addressed when carrying out analyses of new art forms, the results of those analyses are staged as virgin born truths radiating from the works of art. As a result, attempts to critically investigate tendencies across different works of art do not distinguish between the specific technical features applied in a work of art and what is actually encountered by the average member of the audience.
Consider, for instance, the work “5 Million Dollars, 1 Terabyte” by Art 404 (exhibited at Transmediale 2012), which consist of a black terabyte hard drive exhibited in a vitrine. No matter how hard we look, smell, taste, listen or touch the hard drive, we will never be able to extract the most important feature about this work of art – the decisive factor that transforms the terabyte from a dull object of everyday life and that potentially gives rise to aesthetic experience for the audience: The fact that this particular hard drive contains illegally downloaded material worth five million dollars. The only way of becoming aware of this crucial piece of information is by reading the catalogue text or visiting Art 404’s website. Thus, in reality there is a gap between the experience gained from actually encountering the work in the gallery and from reading about it – a gap that is not really addressed in aesthetic research within the digital paradigm, since it interprets the works of art according to technological features and thereby confuses these different subject positions.
Especially the subject position of the audience seems to be neglected in the digital paradigm insofar as audience experiences are assumed in aesthetic analyses to be identical to the artist’s intention, curatorial/critical framing, or theoretical accounts of technical characteristics and potentials of new art types. In the digital paradigm, if the use of a specific technology in a work of art is considered to have interactive, or critical, or alienating potentials it is more or less automatically assumed that the audience/users’ experiences correspond to those potentials without paying much attention to the fact that different contexts and subject positions invite different aesthetic considerations. In this sense, aesthetic research within a digital paradigm is governed by techno-essentialism rather than contextualism.
Art and aesthetics of a post-digital paradigm
As mentioned, a digital and a post-digital paradigm to a large extent co-exists. One evidence of their parallel existence is the recurrent lament over the gap between the world of mainstream contemporary art and the ‘ghetto’ of new media art, digital art or similar terms of technologically informed prefix art. (Quaranta, 2013) We may consider the digital paradigm as the academic equivalence to new media art – we may even claim that the digital paradigm has created new media art as a practice that differs from mainstream contemporary art – and the post-digital paradigm as affiliated with mainstream contemporary art insofar as the post-digital paradigm is not concerned with specific technologies or materials.
Obviously, different media have been in fashion at the scene of contemporary art in different periods (happening was more popular in the 70s whereas painting was more popular the 80s), but contemporary art as a discourse is governed by art as its point of fixation, and not by any specific technology, just like the post-digital paradigm does not favour a technology that succeeds digital technology. Since the post-digital paradigm is also a post-media, or in this context a post-technological, paradigm, we may ask what kind of nodal point that fixates its meaning as a discursive field – and this question is not easily answered. Whereas the digital paradigm is focused on digital technology, the driving force of the post-digital seems first and foremost to be not to automatically focus on digital technology more than positively subscribing to anything specific. The post-digital paradigm, however, is very outspoken in relation to contemporary art in the sense that curators and critics within the art field explicitly have articulated views in favour of a post-digital paradigm (see Quaranta).
One significant potential of applying a post-digital perspective on works of art, as well as on other objects or phenomena, is that it paves the way to, once again, consider the genuinely aesthetic potentials of works that make use of new media and technology – without automatically subjecting aesthetic experience to technology. Hence, we may now ask the ‘naïve’ questions to the field of contemporary art, such as: Are new media of aesthetic relevance in a work of art if they go unnoticed by the audience? How do we elaborate on the fact that the same work of art potentially gives rise to different kinds of aesthetic experiences depending on which subject positions (artist, curator/critic, user, audience) engage with the work and in what manners (as intended by someone else or not)? And how do we consider the aesthetic appeal of works of art whose medium is not accessible to our physical senses?
In order to investigate such aesthetic questions thoroughly it is necessary to insist that the subject positions of artist and audience are separated like they are in Kantian aesthetics. As demonstrated above, a digital paradigm is in accordance with Kant’s paragraph 48 in respect of the separation of art and aesthetics, because it does not confine aesthetics to the domain of art – however, it subsumes aesthetics under the governance of technology, which means that the aesthetic judgement is not given the free play, Kant assigned to it. In the very same paragraph, Kant makes another significant distinction that of relevance here for two reasons:
First, Kant describes how aesthetic taste is at work on the side of the artist when he creates his work insofar he ‘checks his work [against manifold examples from art or nature]; and after many, often toilsome, attempts to content taste he finds the form which satisfies him.’ Kant then crucially states: ‘But taste is merely a judging and not a productive faculty’. In other words: Even when the artist judges his own work during its production, he does so by stepping back from the work ‘after he has exercised and corrected it’ (Kant) in order to create the distance necessary for passing an aesthetic judgement of taste, before stepping towards the work to once again correct it. The artist thus oscillates between two different subject positions: That of the immediate creator and that of the contemplative judge, of which only the latter, according to Kant, is able the pass an aesthetic judgement of taste on the artefact that is being created. In this sense aesthetics is always implicitly an aesthetics of reception – even when it is part of an overall production process.
Now the fact that Kant defined aesthetics as a matter of reception in 1790 does not automatically renders it relevant today. After all, why should we still insist on a separation between the artist and the audience when, for instance, the fields of new media art and relational aesthetics in many cases is characterised by participation and interactivity that result in co-creation to the extent that such a distinction might seem irrelevant? For instance, the Ars Electronica Prix category of ‘Digital Communities’ consists of works in which such a distinction may seem absurd, since the digital communities function collectively in the participants’ everyday life.
One example could be the 2013 Golden Nica winner “El Campo de Cebada”, the name of an enclosed city square in Madrid, where residents and the council work together – on the physical place and via online social media – to define the use of the square. (Fisher-Schreiber, 200-203) No artist or artists group is credited for this ‘work’ since this is genuinely a collective project. Now, participating in “El Compo de Cebada” may (or may not) result in aesthetic reflective judgements among the individuals who engage in the project on an everyday basis in Madrid, as accounted for above with reference to Kant, but the moment the project is framed by the Ars Electronica as an outstanding work belonging to the ‘Digital communities’ category a non-creating audience is created for the project and it becomes an object for potential aesthetic reflective judgement to that audience too.
In fact, the very act of presenting or exhibiting the project within an art (or at least cultural) institutional framework – like Ars Electronica – renders the prime purpose of “El Campo de Cebada” to one of prompting aesthetic reflection rather than immediate function – even if it is the functional dimensions that, contemplated from the point of view of a audience subject position, prompt reflection. Whereas in Madrid the square is inhabited, in the context of Ars Electronica it is ‘exhibited’, and this sole act of exhibiting automatically installs “El Compo de Cebada” as an object for potential reflective aesthetic judgement of taste by subject positions that differ from the work’s immediate producers. Hence, at least three different subject positions are at work in the case of “El Compo de Cebada”: The active participants that create the phenomenon, the active participants that step back to contemplate the phenomenon (who in flesh and blood are identical to the first position), and the audience at Ars Electronica who contemplates the project that is presented to them.
Second, especially in the realm of so-called new media art, there are more than one audience subject position. As lucidly accounted for by Dominic Lopes, in interactive art we may distinguish between the ‘user’ (who explores a work by generating displays in a prescribed manner) and the ‘audience’ (who explore a work by watching users generate displays by interacting with a work). (Lopes, 2010) Similar distinctions have been made between ‘visitors’ and ‘shy visitors’ to exhibitions of interactive art (Scott et al., 2013), and audience members acting as ‘object signs’ and ‘meta signs’ respectively when experiencing digital art (Qvortrup, 2004). Thus, in many cases we may add yet another subject position to the three detected above in relation to “El Compo de Cebada”, because the overall category of audience is often split into (at least) two different subject positions. The difference between Lopes’ two different subject positions of user and audience can be illustrated with reference to the work “OCTO P7C-1” (exhibited at Transmediale 2013). The work (produced by the Telekommunisten group) consisted of a spectacular, seemingly chaotic, network of yellow plasic tubes that criss-crossed the entire main venue of the Transmediale Festival, and worked as an ‘Intertubular Pneumatic Packet Distribution System’, that enabled visitors to communicate between different locations on the festival by way of sending written notes or small objects through the tube system.
In the exhibition Lopes’ term ‘users’ describes those visitors who engaged actively with “OCTO P7C-1” by, for instance, writing/drawing/crafting messages for the postal tubes or sending/receiving such messages by communicating commands to the OCTO-staff working the distribution centre. The distinctive sound accompanying each packet’s travel through the tube system, the messages, the conversations between users and OCTO-workers etc. are all different kinds of audible, visual and sensual displays by which the user gradually explores physical and semiotic dimensions of the work (and potentially gets involved with aesthetic relations with it).
In addition to the user, who acts in accordance with a prescribed manner staged by the creators of the work, the subject position of what Lopes terms ‘audience’ are of relevance when investigating aesthetic implications of a work like OCTO. The audience do not engage directly with the work like the users do, but they watch how users interact with OCTO and they observe how displays are generated as results from this interaction. As such, the audience explores the work, too, albeit in a different manner than users (and may enter in aesthetic relations with the work).
The reason that the subject position that Lopes calls ‘audience’ has been left out of the equation in the digital paradigm, is that the potential aesthetic reflective judgement with this subject position does not fit a techno-essentialist view on new media art. An audience may experience what might be intented by the artist or described by a curator as an ‘interactive, networked installation’ in a very non-interactive, non-networked manner. And even ‘users’, who do interact actively with a work, may have aesthetic experiences that differ from the technologically defined ones governing a digital paradigm. While we may think that this is a problem, because it means that something has gone wrong in the course of communicating fully the essence of the work to the audience, this article will conclude by pointing out why such a ‘mis-communication’ is a good thing, and why the digital paradigm to a large extent ought to support it.
First of all, to challenge the close interpretative connection between creator, technical properties of the work, and audience that governs the digital paradigm is in perfect accordance with Roland Barthes’ account of the birth of the reader and the Death of the Author and with Michel Foucault’s subsequent distinction between author – in flesh and blood – and author function – as an important, yet virtual, character. (Barthes, 1999; Foucault, 1991) When Barthes and Foucault articulated the radical break between artist and audience, the work was simultaneously transformed to text – a transformation that actually fits very well with the digital paradigm, since it is the same transformation strategy the digital paradigm itself applies to phenomena and artefacts that according to a more traditional point of view belongs to different domains of engineering, art, politics, science, etc. Within the digital paradigm, traditional meanings of such different phenomena and artefacts are disregarded in favour of new progressive acts of interpretation that focus on new, technological dimensions and their wider implications.
In other words: The digital paradigm in itself transforms works to texts in order to read them. And this is why it is a strange paradox that the digital paradigm does not seem to allow the same post-structural practice to unfold with regard to the works of art that it, so to speak, adopts (or monopolizes) as the paradigm’s own by incorporating them in books and exhibitions on ‘digital art’ or ‘new media art’.
Apart from the theoretical critique of a digital paradigm – that it does not do justice to the post-structural ideas of separating and acknowledging the functions of different subject positions – another paradox related to the concrete artistic practices is at work in the digital paradigm. Namely that especially when it comes to works of contemporary art that make use of new media and technologies, it seems obvious that the cultural and institutional uncertainties surrounding the works may in fact boost the potentials of ‘readers’ gaining aesthetic experiences from encountering such works due to the lack of an overall concept by which the works might be comprehended rationally: Oil paintings and marble sculptures are conventionally framed and pinned down as ‘works of art’ that we are meant to appreciate as such. Hence, the insistence in Kantian aesthetics that the subject’s aesthetic judgement of taste is governed by reflective rather than determined relation to the object encountered (Kant, 1790: §4), may be compromised when the object is fixed by one specific institutional framing established over a long period. In contrast to paintings or sculptures, many of the objects, designs, events, phenomena, hacks, etc. taken under the wings of the digital paradigm have tremendous aesthetic potential due to the institutional and cultural ambiguity they (still) possess. It seems, therefore, paradoxical when survey books, analysis, critics or curators within a digital paradigm attempt to account for the aesthetic characteristics of such works by subsuming them under determined technological categories.
Therefore, one significant advantage of moving from a digital to a post-digital paradigm is that a post-digital paradigm enables us to approach art in a more open and critical way than what has been practiced in the digital paradigm. Specifically, a post-digital paradigm allows us to seriously plug in the subject positions of the audience when we conduct aesthetic research and analysis of contemporary works of art that make use of or refer to digital technology.
Barthes, R.: Image, Music, Text, 1999 , Noonday Press. “The Dearth of the Author” pp. 142-148 and “From Work to Text”, pp. 155-164.
Fischer-Schreiber, I. (ed.): CyberArts 2013, 2013, Hatje Cantz.
Foucault, M.: “What is an Author?”  in The Foucault Reader (ed.: Rabinow), 1991, London: Penguin, 101-120.
Giannetti, C.: Ästhetik des Digitalen, 2004, Springer.
Lopes, D.: A Philosophy of Computer Art, 2010, Routledge.
Paul, C.: Digital Art, 2008, Thames & Hudson.
Quaranta, D: Beyond New Media Art, 2013, Link Editions
Qvortrup, L.: “Det gode digitale kunstværk”, in Digitale verdener (ed.: Engholm & Klastrup), 2004, Gyldendal: 119-142
Rush, M.: New Media in Art, 1999 + 2005, Thames & Hudson.
Scott, S.; Hinton-Smith, T.; Härmä, V; and Broome, K.: “Goffman in the Gallery: Interactive Art and Visitor Shyness” in Symbolic Interaction, 2013, Vol. 36, Issue 4: 417-438.
Shanken, E. (ed): Art and Electronic Media, 2009, Phaidon.
Strathausen, C.: ”New Media Aesthetics” 2009, in Koepnick & McGlothlin (eds.): After the Digital Divide?, Camden House.
Tribe, M. & Jana, R.: New Media Art, 2006, Taschen.
Wilson, Stephen: Information Arts – intersections of art, science, and technology, 2002, Cambridge (MA): MIT Press.
Wilson, Stephen: Art + Science Now, 2010, Thames & Hudson
www.telekommunisten.net/octo/ (visited 6 Oct. 2013)
 Regarding the original/copy issue in relation to digital imagery see Boris Groys, “From Image to Image File – and Back: Art in the Age of Digitalization” in Groys: Art Power, 2008, MIT Press, 83-91
 A brief historiography of ’new media art’ and ’the post-digital condition’ is provided by Dominico Quaranta in his book Beyond New Media Art, 2013, Brescia: Link Editions, pp. 23-26 and 199-207 respectively