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Lars Qvortrup:

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

Submission for plenary session or full paper.
9 page abstract, brackets indicate where more will be added.
About the author


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:

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".

Anthropocentric Art Forms

The anthropocentric - or "modern" - society, which was first articulated in the Italian renaissance and which culminated in the 19th. century, was based on the idea of the human subject as the universal transcendental principle (cf. the concept of the transcendental subject). Consequently, the human constituted the universal observation and communication format. For example, the world is observable through the observational (or epistemological) categories of the transcendental subject (cf. Kant 1966 [1787])

This has the following consequences for art:

1. The ideal of the linear perspective is developed because the linear perspective represents the perspective according to which the human subject is the observation centre. Similarly, linearity becomes a guiding narrative principle.

2. Beauty/sublimity are categories of the transcendental subject which may be reconstructed by art (cf. Leonardo's ideal man)

3. The mimetic desire represents the potential ability of the observer to construct a world which simulates the "real world". One example is the Faustian ideal of omnipotentiality, i.e. of duplicating the work of the creator.

4. Originality becomes a basic issue because it reflects the status of the divine artist offering his or her observations to the (passive) audience. This again explains the constitution of a causal relationship between artist and audience/spectators, for instance that the artist creates mental effects (emotions etc.) in the audience.

5. The same idea is found in the relationship between human beings and technology. The human being is the potential master of the universe, and technology is perceived as the passive tool of the omnipotential human being.

[Here follows a short exemplification (e.g. Leonardo da Vinci's "Last Supper", cf. Qvortrup 1998) reflected by the aesthetic theory in Immanuel Kant's Kritik der Urteilskraft, 1st part, "Kritik der ästhetischen Urteilskraft", cf. Kant 1971 [1790]].

The Crisis of Anthropocentric Art Forms

The general message of modern, anthropocentric art is that the human individual is the centre of the world: that the environment is seen through the so-called central - i.e. anthropocentric - perspective, and that the aesthetic norm, the "beauty" of art, is defined through the human subject's aesthetic judgement. Little by little, however, modern art undermines itself: the belief in the transcendental subject is being challenged. Take for instance the example of the impressionistic revolution of the established art society at the end of the 19. century. What impressionist painters did was in reality nothing else than taking the anthropocentric art principle seriously, that the world must be observed through the eye of the individual human being. However, doing that they demonstrated that obviously my eyes view the world differently than your eyes, i.e. that in opposition to Kant's aesthetic theory there is a conflict between individuality and universality. In realising this the impressionists were in fact on line with the contemporary philosophical discussion of the transcendental subjectivity represented by Edmund Husserl, leading to the establishment of phenomenology and of so-called transcendental inter-subjectivity.

What is the general message of an impressionist painting? At the surface level it is that nature - or the environment - does not exist an sich, but only observed through a particular temperament. In this way the message can be compared with the message of Husserl's phenomenology, i.e. that the phenomenon is a result of the meeting of object and consciousness. However, I think that the analysis can be radicalised. The impressionist painting does not communicate an external object (nature, environment etc.), but it communicates its own observation of an external object. As an audience we do not observe Monet's waterlilies, but we observe Monet's observations of waterlilies. Analysed in this way impressionism does not mark the end of an artistic epoch, but the beginning of a new epoch, oriented towards self-reflection as art's basic issue.

In particular this implies that the "natural attitude" becomes a problem for art. Consequently art must repeatedly challenge its own artistic conventions, because conventionality leads into new "natural attitudes", i.e. leads into acceptance of the existence of a universal aesthetic language. Art is forced into a state of permanent revolution.

[Here follows a short exemplification (e.g. Picasso's portrait from 1937 of Madame Nusch Éluard, cf. Qvortrup 1998) reflected by the aesthetic theory of Jean-François Lyotard, cf. e.g. the articles "Le sublime et l'avant-garde" (1984) and "Après le sublime, état de l'esthétique" (1987)].

Polycentric Art Forms

The anthropocentric self-description of modern society was first challenged at the turn of the century in the code of art and science. Gradually the idea developed that the world is so complex that it cannot be represented by a single principle (be it God or the human subject). While the tradition of modernity "...recognizes only one single universal subject as the carrier of logical operations...", in a polycentric society one must take "...into account the fact that subjectivity is ontologically distributed over a plurality of subject-centres." (Günther 1979 p. 122) Consequently the idea of transcendentality must be given up: there is no single issue (God, the human being) which can be raised into a universally constitutional status.

If this is true, observations of the world (including observations of ourselves) cannot be fully communicated, because there is no universal code (or communication format) through which we can fully understand each other. On the contrary, world observations are communicated through a multiplicity of codes which cannot be reduced to each other (they are mutually incompatible).

This has the following consequences for art:

1. Art develops from the linear text (or the linear perspective) to the cybertext as a machine for the production of a variety of expressions or narratives (e.g. from unicursal topology to multicursal topology, cf. Aarseth 1997).

2. The ideal is not to reconstruct beauty, but to overcome the gap between consciousness and communication: to communicate those observations which cannot otherwise be communicated, i.e. to give access to a non-communicative world. Beauty is not a transcendentally pre-existing fact which art must reconstruct; on the contrary, beauty is the potential outcome of artistic experiments, e.g. a result of interferential patterns.

3. The cyber-system is not an imitation of the world (although it is a common illusion concerning multimedia that their special ability lies in their imitational force: in this way multimedia are included in the programme of traditional modern art, i.e. to imitate the environment). Rather, the cyber-system consists of a difference which is re-introduced into itself (the principle of re-entry): a difference which is re-introduced into itself creates complexity, thus creating an illusion of parallel (mutually interfering) worlds.

4. As originality is given up the idea of the role of the artist develops from the artist as the divine and indisputable creator (the primary cause) and the audience as the "impotent voyeur", to the artist and the art audience as co-creators or "co-investors" in a shared hypercomplex system. The role of the artist then is to create potential worlds through which "users" can create their own world realisations or make their own paths.

5. Regarding the relationship between the human being and technology the ideal of modernity of a master-slave relationship is challenged. Instead, technology is perceived as an agent in itself, and the human-technology relationship is understood as a subject-subject relationship in which not only the human being forms the technological agent, but also the technological agent forms the human being. Furthermore this latter formation process is reintroduced into the former. One example is digital media which form the way in which human beings observe the world, including their observation of technology. This gives way to a new understanding of art as a creative process: technology is not the passive instrument of the artistic creator, but the interference between the human subject and the technological subject constitutes a create process.

Digital Art and Polycentrism

Computers and digital networks are tools in working life, in the public sphere, in government services and administration and in our daily life. However, they are also on their way into the world of art.

In the world of art, computers and digital networks represent yet another tool for artistic communication. In one sense, computers and digital networks are similar to other art tools. In another sense, however, they are radically different.

They are similar to other tools - such as oil and canvas for the painter, the written language for the author, clay and stone for the sculptor - in the sense that any tool of art can be defined as an observation and communication instrument. The painter observes and communicates the world through oil and canvas, the author does it through the written language, etc. The significance of these tools is not that they become obedient slaves in the hands of the art master, but that they represent challenges to the artist. Paintings are the result of the fight between the observation and communication materials and the artist, etc.

In what sense are computers and digital networks different from other artistic observation and communication media? How do interactive digital media influence our artistic observation and communication potentialities, i.e. how is computer art different from traditional art?

In relation to the ideal of "beauty" or "sublimity" traditional art has reflected the role of the art work as a material object which one can specify in time and space and which is produced by one person - in some cases a group of persons - for an audience with reference to an external phenomenon or idea. It is well-known that aesthetics in addition to identifying the concepts of "beauty" or "sublimity" has aimed at providing rules for how to manipulate materials (sounds, colours, languages, raw materials) in order to reach the form which most appropriately articulate the idea of beauty or sublimity.

In a number of ways computer art is different from traditional art: