If the interest in the post-digital seems to point at 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. One could argue however that the screen is not the most important part of a digital computer, and thus also not of digital media. Paul E. Ceruzzi states in his History of Computing that the computer can be defined in various ways. One definition is that the computer is a system applicable to many different tasks, even beyond a ‘purely technical arena’. Another is that it is a social construct (Ceruzzi 4). This means the definition and shape of a computer is flexible, both technologically and socio-culturally. A screen-based analysis of art in this context literally glosses over the issues in this area, and makes certain works partially or completely ‘invisible’. The development of a post-digital media theory possibly helps us break away from a dominant screen-based analyses of art in the context of digital media. The issue here is not one of medium specificity though. The aim is to develop a more comprehensive view of specific works and practices to depart from in criticism, theory, and education.
Not only does the screen get overvalued. What is not directly visible is also less likely to get noticed. Additional problems for art in the context of digital media seem to be the visual impermeability or the spatial dispersion of specific works and practices. What I mean with visual impermeability is the presence of somehow ‘hidden’ structures, like network technologies, code and software processes, and even indirect influences of the Internet or of computer technology, in specific works of art. Spatial dispersion on the other hand points to works in which the various elements of a work are out of reach physically, hiding them in another way. In the case of networked installation art or performance they are either in another space, in another town, in another country (Malpas 109; Shanken 35). In conceptual or tactical applications of networked space there often is only a second-degree, and thus also distant, network connection (Greene 119; Cramer, “Anti-Media” 221). With art consisting entirely of code executed in a computer the work of art is not just hidden inside the fiber and plastics of a machine, but it is also spatially dispersed in terms of the time consumed and the movements, inside and outside the computer, produced in the process (Arns 198; Goriunova, Shulgin, “Read_Me 2004 Edition” 20).
Art created in the context of digital media generally possesses a high degree of openness, because it is often time-based, interactive (Paul 23), and interdisciplinary, or, what Frank Popper calls, ‘poly-artistic’ (131). The shape of the works described above asks for a perspective that reaches not only beyond the screen, but which also takes into account the instability and interdisciplinary basis of the works in question. Earlier approaches suggest using Jack Burnham’s Systems Aesthetics (Shanken Digital Arts and Culture Conference 2009) or Callon and Latour’s Actor Network Theory (ANT) (Lichty ISEA2011) as a basis. The enduring prevalence of the visual arts in contemporary art institutions and exhibitions seems to suggest developing a view beyond the screen however asks for an alternative visual approach, rather than a predominantly conceptual, or actor network approach. The work of 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. It potentially connects conceptual and scientific approaches, such as also the still relevant methodologies based on Systems Aesthetics and ANT, to the visual domain.
At the same time there is of course a level of abstraction in all art, including the examples used here, which cannot be described in terms of a visualization derived from scientific knowledge or insight alone. What is needed is an elaboration of the notion of the expanded image towards forms of imagination that combine the actual and the immeasurable, or the poetic. By including conceptual visualizations of actual or virtual i.e. possible events, systems or objects in an understanding of visual art the space of interpretation and engagement with art should be enriched rather than limited. An understanding of how material dimensions of a work of art expand, exist, or behave beyond the line of sight, and in the case of digital art beyond the screen, need be no more prescriptive concerning interpretation or appreciation than seeing a painting or a sculpture. I see my work as an addition to the discussions about a new approach to or interpretation of materialism in art and media theory (Daston 14; Parikka, “New Materialism as Media Theory” 99; Dolphijn, van der Tuin 98; Barret, Bolt 3), because of the unwanted but inescapable battle about ‘what matters’ in art, a battle one has to fight in new media art all too often (Graham, Cook 6). The work of Alexander Galloway is also always an inspiration to explore the connections and crossovers between the digital and the old-fashioned ‘Real’, and this text borrows heavily from his The Interface Effect. A revaluation of the material dimensions of art and culture seems at hand, and it seems most urgent than in the fast growing digital domain.
The perceptional model borrowed from Arnheim needs to be understood in all its variability if it is to be used for art. Refinements from specific fields and sub-fields of media theory, contemporary philosophy, the media art field and the contemporary art field are necessary to complete any picture of art after the collapse of the digital screen: 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 9). 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. Virilio, in all his poetic paranoia, expresses this feeling precisely: ‘What was still only on the drawing board with the industrial reproduction of images analysed by Walter Benjamin, literally explodes with the ‘Large-Scale Optics’ on the Internet, since telesurveillance extends to telesurveillance of art.’ (14)
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 seems to have created a lack of analytical tools to grasp the realities of art in the age of digital media. What the ongoing screen-based analysis of digital media shows is that this causes the consistent variability of the digital in art to go largely unnoticed.
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. A certain amount of institutionalization slips into the deepest layers of life and practice through everyday tools for expression, production, and recollection. Galloway speaks of an ‘anti-anthropocentrism of the realm of practice’ (22). We run our economical, cultural, social, and military environments increasingly in collaboration with machines, rather than that we simply use those machines. For art this means we have bypassed the stage of the medium almost completely. Art exists within an ecosystem of humans and machines, whereby the latter reproduce their design in the way in which they compose an outcome. Though digital technologies are human-made and can be subjected to a huge variety of possible applications and couplings, their underlying structures are created with and from a mathematical efficiency that is highly rigid. Galloway illustrates this quite literally by discussing the way the Internet itself is visualized through various digital imaging software. Galloway implicitly criticizes screen-based analysis of digital media technologies when he reveals how all visualizations of the Internet look more or less the same (83). Analyses and views of art and culture today based on images and imaging alone miss the point. He calls for ‘a poetics as such for this mysterious new machinic space’. Galloway writes: ‘Offering a counter-aesthetic in the face of such systematicity is the first step toward building a poetics for it, a language of representability adequate to it’ (99).
Galloway’s call for a poetics as such for digital environments is a challenge to Jacques Rancière, who in his book The Future of the Image discusses the unrepresentable today in terms of violent images (109), but completely overlooks the challenges concerning acts of violence in today’s information society, and how to represent these new forms of violence (Galloway 91). The difficulty to represent events, shapes, and practices within the digital realm is however not limited to those of violence. Of the many events and practices that escape simple imaging in digital media environments the highly varied field of art practices is one. The merging of machine space and, in this case, art practice asks for a visualization method that is simultaneously applicable to both. Within a context that is deeply connected to the scientific realm applying a form of visualization common in science seems fitting.
In his book Visual Thinking the psychologist and art theorist Rudolph Arnheim describes various forms of visualization, one of which is that of scientific speculation and knowledge. 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’ (274). 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 theory, observation, experience, and psychology. In other words, these visualizations are as much subjective as they are objective views of events, phenomena, or objects that exist beyond the reach of the human eye.
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. His refusal was based on cultural notions of an underlying perfection existing in all of God’s creation, and ellipses were considered imperfect. 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).
Models for Theory and Interpretation
A method of visualization based on that of science therefore is not prescriptive, but flexible and even dynamic. Works of art can still be explored from different perspectives, for the development of which intuition, theory and physical experience are combined. 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, cultural, or emotional 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. Different positions and different levels of knowledge can produce subtle differences in experience. Yet also a highly informed viewing of, say, a network installation piece, may still evoke a variety of interpretations and readings.
Artistic practice is at least as varied as that of science. Not just any model for theory will fit every individual work. Which specialism to approach an individual work from depends on obvious indications or pretheoretical intuitions about the disciplinary realm this work most clearly seems based in. When an artist presents his own software as a work the obvious choice could be to approach this work from computer linguistics and literary theory, as well as from art. When the emphasis in a work is on achieving some kind of political or social effect the obvious choice might be to include a tactical media perspective, in which a political and a technological analysis of media technologies is mixed, in an interpretation. Though in practice most works of art in the context of digital media will turn out to need an interdisciplinary approach, the ‘remediation of being’ Galloway describes does seem to preserve a continuation of the same diversity we find al through art practice, even if certain visible elements appear the same (the presence of computers, cables, screens, windows on a screen, predominant formats for sharing texts, etc.).
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, “Words Made Flesh”, 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: Code Art
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 textual representation, as screen-based results of software, through its effects within a physical environment, or through all of these. To create visualization, a ‘model of theory’, it is necessary however to be fully aware of the potential activity inherent to any work of code art. Visualizing the work in full force would entail movement through time and space, however minimal in the machine or subject it runs on, as well as its relation to cultural, social, and political realms.
Let us take a work like Jaromil’s Forkbomb for example, a highly aesthetic and minimal string of code designed to replicate itself endlessly. When seeing it displayed as text, like it was painted on a wall at Transmediale 2012, we could admire the beauty of the string of signs. Awareness of it being a piece of executable code of a very specific kind, a fork bomb virus, however leads us beyond this relatively simple visible dimension. We could imagine a proliferation of that string of code in the shape of maybe a family tree, much like the poetic experiments Florian Cramer describes (“Words Made Flesh”, 94), but constantly splitting, moving, growing. We could at the same time see the hard disc working away and filling up, its design standardized so as to allow indeterminate applications and thus also viruses, along the observations in Matthew Fuller’s Media Ecologies (93). We could wait to see how much time it takes for the computer to crash, placing it in both the media archeological domain and the new materialism described by Jussi Parikka (97). We could also see a computer failing at being a productive machine in terms of expectations of what its purpose is in ways Galloway describes (22).
I already mentioned this paper is not a call for a renewed medium specificity per se. What I describe is explicitly also not the splitting of the work into a collection of elements or aspects. In a criticism of influential and limiting art theoretical models Garry L. Hagberg explains the tendency to downgrade physical forces in a work of art to ‘aspects’ as a justification and reinforcement of institutional approaches of art. Isolating physical traits of a work into separate elements or aspects facilitates an equally isolated, narrow path of interpretation. Yet, he writes, ‘What we call an “aspect” of a thing, in a particular context of perception, is not successfully generalizable’ (502). An interpretation of Forkbomb purely from the angle of visual poetry effectively would block the wide reach of the work from view, as does an approach of it as a virus alone. When ‘the art object is described as having aspects, only a set of which are put forward as candidates,’ (Hagberg 502) a work tends to be judged on simple traits: the presence of a screen, be it interactive or not; the production of image cultures; technofetishism; etc. We want to avoid that a strategic or simplistic selection of ‘aspects’ comes to ‘constitute the aesthetically relevant part of the work’ (Hagberg 502). What I describe however is a pattern of forces, some of which are stronger than others and pull the work in a certain direction, i.e. poetry, sculpture, performance, installation, or activist art.
Conceptualism and the Digital Sphere
The reason I call particular practices conceptualist is that they largely manifest themselves in some form outside of digital media, yet these media do inform their shape. The technology seemingly disappears in them. Maybe more than in other art practices digital media here ‘remediate 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.
Sculpture and Performance across Digital Networks
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 interpretation than one would expect. Arnheim extensively describes the subjective development of scientific models (279). He describes them as changing over time and being open-ended. There is never 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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