See a reply Michael Swartzbeck
in the January 1, 1997 Web Schmeb.
LOTS OF PEOPLE TALK about the coming convergence of computers,
communication and television. This convergence will probably happen. In
fact, judging from the new models of personal computers which are clearly
being positioned as consumer electronic devices (incorporating answering
machine and TV cards in them), it is indeed well underway.
Those of us who work with digital art often debate another
convergence -- the convergence between art world and computer art world. I
recently came to the conclusion that this particular convergence will NOT
happen. Below are the reasons why.
(In the following, I will refer to art world -- galleries, major
museums, prestigious art journals -- as Duchamp-land, in analogy with
Disneyland. I will also refer to the world of computer arts, as exemplified
by ISEA, Ars Electronica, SIGGRAPH art shows, etc. as Turing-land).
The typical object which is admitted in Duchamp-land (i.e., counted
as contemporary art) meets the following characteristics:
- Oriented towards the "content." Or, as they say in Hollywood,
"its the content, stupid." The content may mean beauty (although towards
the end of the century the arts have, by and large, delegated the function
of providing beauty for society to MTV and fashion); "metaphors about human
condition"; transgressing accepted cultural norms, etc.
- "Complicated." This characteristic requires a further
sociological and semiotic analysis, but here we can just say that it refers
to the evocation of a multitude of cultural codes requiring to read the
object as well as a particular, "post-modern" ironic attitude.
- Ironic, self-referential, and often literally destructive
attitude towards its material, i.e., its technology, be it canvas, glass,
motors, electronics, etc. The examples are the awareness -- which has
largely shaped artistic modernism -- of the tension between the illusion
and the flatness of the canvas; ironic machines by Duchamp;
self-destructive machines by Tinguely. Perhaps the best and most relevant
example is the first exhibition of Paik where he screwed technology --
ripping open television sets or changing TV signals by affixing magnets to
Let us now look at Turing-land. As we will see, Turing-land is
characterized by directly opposing characteristics:
- Orientation towards new, state-of-the-art computer technology,
rather than "content." In the 1960s and 1970s it was exploration of
algorithms and cybernetics, later it was computer graphics, few years ago
it was CD-ROM and "interactivity" (which is a highly problematic concept
because all modern human-computer interfaces are interactive, i.e. a modern
computer is an interactive device by definition, so the word does not say
anything more than simply that an artwork is using a computer); now it is
WWW and "memes"; next year it maybe DVD (digital video disk) or super-high
bandwidth networks or something else. In short, Turing-land functions as a
place in society where the people from the worlds of culture and art play
with latest computer technologies. Sociologically, this is exemplified by
the historically changing categories of exhibitions such as Ars Electronica
and ISEA: the category of "computer graphics" has been dropped in favor of
a new category of "WWW art," etc.
- "Simple" and usually lacking irony. See below.
- Most important, objects in Turing-land take technology which
they use always seriously. (This is one important difference between
current computer art and art and technology movement of the 1960s.) In
that, computer art functions exactly like computer industry. How often do
you see computer artists seriously confronting and foregrounding the basic
nature of computer technology -- that computers always crash; that computer
programs run out of memory; that half of the links on the WWW lead nowhere,
since nobody cleans up this gigantic dumping site of information site known
as "World Wide Web"; that a typical VR user spends her or his time being
lirerally lost rather than being engaged in "meaningful" interaction with a
virtual world; etc. In short, our civilization is rushing to ground itself
in a technology which can only be described as highly unreliable,
transient, and incomplete. When computers don't work at a computer art
show, the artists and the audience always treat this fact with horror,
although they are present at an industry demo -- as opposed to taking this
to be a wonderful Dada-like accident.
- Perhaps only the artists from post-communist societies are ready to
recognize that in an information society the noise is as meaningful as the
signal, and that the nature of technology is that it does not work as it
supposed to. As an example, consider the project (which I already mentioned
in my previous post) presented by Russian conceptual poet Dmitry Prigov
during ISEA '94. He used a business translation program to translate a
famous 19th century Russian poem from Russian into Finish, then from Finish
into English, and then from English back into Russian (I may have gotten
the details wrong but that should not matter). He then declared the
mistakes made by computer program (which, designed to deal with business
prose, was not very kind to Russian poetry) as his new work of art. Thus,
the noise became the signal. (Significantly, this is something which
Shannon's mathematical theory of communication, which forms the
intellectual backbone of the information society, has recognized half a
But let us return to the battle between Duchamp-land and
Turing-land. Shall I conclude from my analysis that now, as Duchamp-land
has finally discovered computers and begun to use them with its usual irony
and sophistication, gatherings such as ISEA and Ars Electronica should
simply be abolished? Probably not. These gatherings do play an important
function of being a buffer zone, an interface where the world of culture at
large and the world of computer culture meet each other. Sometimes we even
see artists genuinely pushing the boundaries of new media aesthetics, i.e.
going beyond what is already accomplished by flight simulators, new
computer games with their AI engines, MIT Media Lab projects, etc. In
short, on occasion artists are able to compete with computer researchers,
rather than simply creating new demos for commercial software, thus
functioning as "memes" for computer industry.
What we should not expect from Turing-land is art which will be
accepted in Duchamp-land. Duchamp-land wants art, not research into new
aesthetic possibilities of new media. The convergence will not happen.