digital arts & culture 1998

Lars Qvortrup:

The Aesthetics of Interference: from Anthropocentric to Polycentric Self-Observation and the Role of Digital Media

The basic statement of the present paper is that digital art should be characterised as a way to communicate new social conditions using new observation tools, rather than being a result of new technology. In discussing this statement the paper presents and defends the following theses:

  • We are experiencing an aesthetic transgression from anthropocentric art forms of modern society to polycentric art forms of the current hypercomplex society.
  • Digital, interactive technology provides an observation and communication tool which is particularly adequate to articulate the above change.
  • Under the current post-normative conditions aesthetics is a result of interferences between complex systems, rather than being the realisation of normative categories of “beauty” or “sublimity”.
The implicit idea behind the first thesis is that we are on our way into a society which is radically different from the so-called modern society. It has been described as “functionally differentiated” (Luhmann 1997), as “polycontextural” (Günther 1979) or as “hypercomplex” (Qvortrup 1998), emphasising that it does not offer one single point of observation, but a number of mutually competing observation points with each their own social context. This does not “create” new art forms in any causal sense, but it creates a need for observing the world differently.

This of course is a challenge to art and to the development of new art forms, and as a matter of fact the change from modern society's anthropocentrism into present society's polycentrism has been reflected by new art forms since the beginning of the 20. century. Particularly, this change has been taken up by so-called “digital art” which in a particularly adequate way has articulated the hypercomplex conditions. However, digital art is not a product of society, but it is a form that one may choose in order to observe new societal trends. More important in the present context, digital art is not a product of technology, but new digital media offer us new ways to observe society, and instead of analysing digital art within a technological context, it should be analysed within an art-historical context.

However, this does not imply that “digitalisation of art” does not make a difference. On the contrary - and in accordance with my second thesis - digital media have communication potentialities which are particularly adequate for the observations of a polycontextural society. I see information technology not as a tool, but as a medium, that is as a kind of artificial eye and ear. Thus, such as technology in general can be defined as a sort of artificial body extension, information technology may be defined as an artificial extension of our sensational faculties, i.e. as artificial senses. The relevant issue concerning interactive digital media is that they can focus on phenomena which earlier have been difficult to see. As Gregory Bateson said, the function of the eye is not to let the world into the mind, but to keep it out (cf. Bateson 1991 p. 182). Similarly, the function of the senses is not to sense everything, but to select. We see by throwing away information, and the reason for being able to see is that we select, i.e. that we reduce complexity, that we focus on something and not something else. In this sense interactive digital media is an observation selection mechanism which allow us to see things which until now have been un-observable. The communicative articulations of a polycentric society which have existed in embryonic versions in e.g. Cubism or abstract art forms are fully enfolded in digital art.

The third thesis, that under the current post-normative conditions aesthetics is a result of interferences between complex systems, rather than being the realisation of normative categories of “beauty” or “sublimity” is actually a combination of the first two theses. In a society characterised by mutually competing observation centres aesthetics cannot defend normative ideas of transcendental aesthetic categories of beauty or sublimity. However, this does not imply that aesthetic forms cannot be specified. But instead of realising something “behind” the surface (the hidden ideal of beauty etc.), aesthetics remains at the surface, being the result of interferences between different observation centres and between the social systems represented by these centres. This paves the way for digital media, because they can articulate the hypercomplex result of complex systems' mutual interference.

In the paper, first I will summarise the cultural and aesthetic change from anthropocentric art forms of modern society and polycentric art forms. Then I will illustrate the potentialities of interactive digital media for realising this change. Finally, I will exemplify digital - or interferential - art forms, partly with art forms using digital media as their only medium, partly with art forms which are based on an interference between digital media and other media (for instance: the body as a medium for artistic expressions in interference with digital media), leading into a concluding proposal for “the aesthetics of interference”.

Lars Qvortrup
Aalborg University






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Last update: 23rd of September 1998