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".
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 ].
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)].
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.
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:
As a consequence one may assume that computer art represents a transgression of classical forms of art. This is not the result of computers and digital networks. It is primarily the result of the artists' articulation of the transition from modern to the current hypercomplex society. However, it is my assumption that interactive digital media represent a particularly adequate medium for articulating this transition. Thus, computer art as an aesthetic expression is determined by its particular dynamics, its immateriality and its unspecificity in time and space which influences the relation between artist and object, between audience and object, and between artist and audience. For instance, it seems that the ideals of a new aesthetics depend on the dynamic relationship between order and complexity such that "beauty" is not the result of a reduction of complexity (which is often seen as an implicit assumption), but that "beauty" emerges through higher orders of complexity which are reached by letting complex systems interfere, so that patterns of seemingly "natural" beauty occur as the result of these interferences - and with the artist playing only a facilitating role. This implies that "beauty" or "sublimity" is not the representation of any kind of pre-existing "order" which the artist with his or her obedient tools tries to express. On the contrary, "beauty" is the final result of the fight between the artist-agent and the technology-agent and between different forms of complexity which interfere within the dynamic art work (re. the concepts of "artist-agent" and "technology-agent" see Bruno Latour's concept of "human-agent" and "technological-agent", cf. Latour 1994 and 1996).
Another aspect of polycentric society is that reality is the joint product of those who communicate. In art this was experimented with in participatory art works, and as a specific example Marcel Duchamp questioned the esoteric language of art using everyday things as sculptures with the inherent message that art is produced by everyone, and that something becomes art not by being constructed by the romantic art genius, but by being de-contextualised, i.e. moved from the ordinary context into the context of artistic observations.
At the surface level4 a number of strong metaphors are articulated. For instance it is clear that "light" plays a central role: The channel is a light tunnel in the sense that light beams from the mouthpieces. Also, light plays a double role: it is both heaven and hell, heaven in the sense that it is the aura of The Other which can be found by digging one's way through the tunnel, hell in the sense of fires coming from the underworld.
Also, a number of narrative conventions are activated. For instance, the combination of affection and perception image (cf. Deleuze 1983 and 1985) is used. The dominating narrative situation is the one of the affection image which in film is the image representing the main character (the audience being put into the perspective of the actor), and which in the tunnel is the user digging his/her way through the underworld. Now and then the affection image is replaced by the perception image which in film is the image representing the whole situation, and which in the tunnel is a map of the current position. This again has become a basic convention in many computer games, demonstrating the fact that in computer art many art forms are combined such as painting, film, computer games, gardening, music, sculpturing, and dramaturgy.
However, at a deeper level it is obvious that "the tunnel" is not just a "re-cycling" of already known and conventionalised metaphors and narratives. On the contrary, "the tunnel" demonstrates that these new works of art - computer art - radicalise the communication of art which has gradually developed since the beginning of this century.
First, it is demonstrated that there is not one but many perspectives. Or, in a more radical sense interactive multimedia works of art demonstrate that their particular world construction is seen and constructed from within themselves. The perspective is not given ex ante but is created by the specific work of art. The context which is articulated is an "internal context".
Furthermore, "the tunnel" signifies that artistic reality is the joint product of those who communicate through art. The artist acts as a facilitator, but the work of art is only actuated through the intervention of the so-called "audience."
Finally, this specific work of art - but indeed also many other interactive multimedia art works - demonstrates the role of art to provide a utopian mediation of separated observers. Here, the tunnel demonstrates the utopian aim of art to communicate what cannot otherwise be communicated. It is my assumption that in these respects "the tunnel" is not an exception, but that it represents the general trend of contemporary interactive multimedia art. This shows that so-called "computer art" is not something external to the general art world - a product of technology being introduced from the outside5 - but that it grows out of existing art trends, representing an integrated phase within the development of art in this century using interactive, digital media as a new and appropriate means of articulation.
[In the final version of the paper, other examples of Digital Art/Polycentrism will be presented in order to propose a structured overview of Digital Art]
It is clear that interference is a basic artistic construction principle through the many performances of Hotel Pro Forma. One obvious example is the opera "Operation : Orfeo" from 1993. The music originates from three different sources: John Cage's minimalism, Danish composer Bo Holten's renaissance inspired choir, and Gluck's aria 'Che faró sensa Eurudice' from his opera about Orpheus and Euridice. The point is, however, that this does not create a post-modern "anything goes" atmosphere of de-contextualised quotes, but that the interference of music styles create a new, complex pattern of beauty.
Also, interferences between different narratives can be found in Hotel Pro Forma productions, cf. the musical "Monkey Business Class" from 1996 where the narrative of a medieval morality play interferes with the narrative of the musical and the "meta-narrative" of money.
Another explicit quality of Hotel Pro Forma productions is the experimentation with space representation. For instance, it seems to be an ironic comment to our contemporary technological achievements where three-dimensional spaces are constructed and represented on two-dimensional computer screens that the large three-dimensional scenic space of "Operation : Orfeo" is transformed into a seemingly two-dimensional flat canvas. Generally speaking, most Hotel Pro Forma productions lie somewhere between theatre and exhibition, thus transforming conventional theatre with its focus on a linear narrative which is "mise en scène" into a "live" installation exhibition in which the "scène" is so to speak "mise en narrative".
Finally, Hotel Pro Forma experiments with the relationship between humans and technology, and it is obvious that the human-subject versus technology-subject problematic is an ongoing theme. Often, actors are transformed into seemingly robotic agents, interacting with a dynamic stage represented by "light machines" constituting an elastic and responsive space.
In the recent theatre performance by Hotel Pro Forma "Dobbeltøksens Hus" ("The House of the Double-Headed Axe" (February 5 1998) I observed some further realisations of these themes as the basis for the theatrical performance. In particular the aim of the performance seemed to be the construction of beauty, not as the realisation of an already existing universal "order" of beauty (beauty as a transcendental principle), but as the result of interferences of mutually complex systems.
The basic ingredients of the performance were a choir (in the sense of the classical Greek theatre), a soloist, a dancer, a music group, and an artificial environment or stage constructed by light, music and sounds. The central square of the performance was an arrangement of light. Using a so-called "double-scroller" a large number of images and patterns were mutually super-imposed creating exactly the effect of beauty as "higher-order-complexity". For me, this constituted the basic theme of the performance: that beauty is effected by the interference of mutually closed systems of complexity, and thus that beauty does not necessarily follow through "extraction" of complexity into simple systems, but that is may as well follow as the result of spontaneous or stochastic interferences, e.g. through the technical creation of higher levels of complexity into seemingly chaotic forms.
I found the same idea articulated by the choir. Here pieces of trivial pop-poetry or daily-life actions (the sharpening of knives, etc.) were super-imposed in much the same way as it is done in the musical tradition of "minimalism": Simple rhythms, banal rhymes and trivial poetry were mutually staggered by a few seconds, and as a result new patterns of beauty emerged.
How were the ideas of Latour regarding the human-technology relationship articulated? They were demonstrated by the fact that there was a "Latourian" uncertainty regarding the subject-object relations. Obviously, some of the human actors acted in the same, objectified way as did the artificial, double-scroller based light system or the artificial sounds. Also, the singing of Latin verses demonstrated that the frame of performance - the conditions for acting - was based on an artificial system created several hundred years ago and not immediately understandable to a modern audience.
For me these experiments could easily and with interesting effects be extended by actually introducing avatars and intelligent agents as co-actors on a virtual three-dimensional stage, or by creating a more intensified interaction between a dynamic hyperspace and the human actors.
[I am currently working with the productions of Hotel Pro Forma, and a more comprehensive analysis will be provided in the final version of the paper].
Gregory Bateson: Sacred Unity. Further Steps to an Ecology of Mind. Harper Collins, New York 1991.
Niels Brügger and Finn Frandsen (eds.): Filosofiske forskydninger. En bog om Jean-François Lyotard. Akademisk Forlag, Copenhagen 1989.
Gilles Deleuze: Cinema 1-2, L'Image-Mouvement and L'Image-Temps. Paris: Les Editions de Minuit 1983 and 1985.
Mette Juhler and Lars Qvortrup (Eds.): Computer @rt as World Construction. Forthcoming (1998).
Gotthard Günther: Beiträge zur Grundlegung einer operationsfähigen Dialektik. Zweiter Band. Felix Meiner Verlag, Hamburg 1979.
Edmund Husserl: Fænomenologiens idé (The Idea of Phenomenology). Hans Reitzels Forlag, Copenhagen 1997 . Translated from Die Idee der Phänomenologie, Husserliana II, Martinus Nijhoff, Den Haag 1973.
Immanuel Kant: Kritik der reinen Vernunft. Philip Reclam Verlag, Stuttgart 1966 .
Immanuel Kant: Kritik der Urteilskraft. Philip Reclam Verlag, Stuttgart 1971 .
Bruno Latour: "On Technological Mediation", in: Common Knowledge 3, 1994 p. 29-64.
Bruno Latour: Aramis or the Love of Technology. Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA and London, 1996 (translated from Aramis, ou l'amour des techniques. Editions la Découverte 1993).
Niklas Luhmann: Die Kunst der Gesellschaft. Frankfurt a.M. 1995.
Niklas Luhmann: Die Gesellschaft der Gesellschaft. Frankfurt a.M. 1997.
Niklas Luhmann, Frederick D. Bunsen, Dirk Baecker: Unbeobachtbare Welt. Über Kunst und Architektur. Bielefeld 1990.
Jean-François Lyotard: L'inhumain. Galilée, Paris 1988 (including: "Le sublime et l'avant-garde" (1984) and "Après le sublime, état de l'esthétique" (1987)).
Lars Qvortrup: Det hyperkomplekse samfund. Fjorten fortællinger om informationssamfundet (The Hypercomplex Society. Fourteen Tales about the Information Society). Gyldendal, Copenhagen, 1998.
2 This implies that art at the turn of the century in its particular medium articulated the same experience as e.g. Edmund Husserl did in the medium of science, for instance in his lectures from 1907 concerning the idea of phenomenology (cf. Husserl 1997). Back
3 This has already been conventionalised, cf. for instance the basic icon of Apple Macintosh computers (system OS icon), which is a human face seen from two different positions of observation. Back
4 If this is an appropriate word for a sub-Atlantic tunnel. Back
5 From what in an artistic perspective would be a technological nowhere. Back
6 Within the current context I can only give one or two very brief examples. A more in-depth analysis of the achievements of Hotel Pro Forma has to await a later opportunity. Back
My best regards
Lars Qvortrup, InterMedia-Aalborg, Aalborg University, Fredrik Bajers Vej 7 C2, DK-9220 Aalborg East, firstname.lastname@example.org