Socrates vs Aristotle: An Imagined Socratic Dialog on New Media Theory

Screen Shot 2015-12-03 at 1.38.41 PMOur fine arts were developed, their types and uses were established, in times very different from the present, by men whose power of action upon things was insignificant in comparison with ours…For the last twenty years neither matter nor space nor time has been what it was from time immemorial. We must expect great innovations to transform the entire technique of the arts, thereby affecting artistic invention itself and perhaps even bringing about an amazing change in our very notion of art.

– Paul Valéry, Pièces sur L’Art, 1931, “The Conquest of Ubiquity.”

This quote from Valéry was chosen by critic Walter Benjamin as the epigraph to his 1936 essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” — a call for a new theoretical approach to art at the time when mass-produced copies suddenly became available to the public. Today, with the introduction of computers and their ability to take variable inputs from audiences and the environment and process them with databases of images and instructions in real time to create altogether new artistic mediums, this quote literally reads like it could have been written yesterday. Once again, with all the changes in media, we find ourselves at a moment in history that calls for a new critical theory to process, understand, and apply meaning to the creative works of our time. 

Benjamin writes:

Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be….The presence of the original is the prerequisite to the concept of authenticity…One might subsume the eliminated element in the term “aura” and go on to say: that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art.

So, for example, despite the preponderance of reproductions of da Vinci’s Mona Lisa on everything from posters to coffee mugs to refrigerator magnets, tourists still flock to the Louvre and stand in line for hours to get a passing glimpse of the “original.” They crave to behold and be in the presence of that “aura.”

One element in algorithm-based pieces is that they never repeat in the exact same way. There is no “original,” per se, to which viewers may ever refer back, presenting a challenge in attaching meaning to such a fleeting experience.

Does does the fluid nature of this work make it harder to interpret? What is gained by introducing this element of chance? Is it just novelty for novelty’s sake?

Benjamin also writes, in the same essay, “From a photographic negative, for example, one can make any number of prints; to ask for the ‘authentic’ print makes no sense.”

It’s not necessarily more difficult to interpret — you just have to have different tools for interpretation. As Benjamin called for a new set of interpretive tools in 1936, our era calls for its own set of tools. Today, with software-driven work, you have to look not just at the thing itself but also at the rules that drive it, the rules that can create infinite variations.

This idea that “art” is fixed in a static object, a painting or a sculpture, made of “archival materials” that must be maintained like a mummy on life support in an hermetically-sealed environment has long been challenged by performance art, installation, and social practices, to name just a few, well-known ephemeral forms. Software is just another such ephemeral form, and even it has a precedent in the Fluxus movement, practiced by Yoko Ono, among others, wherein the “art work” was a set of rules that would yield different results each time those rules were put into action, and demanded “inputs” from an active “audience.”

In describing what he calls “Liquid Architecture,” the new media artist Marcos Novak has said:

If we described liquid architecture as a symphony in space, this description should still fall short of the promise. A symphony, though it varies within its duration, is still a fixed object and can be repeated. At its fullest expression a liquid architecture is more than that. It is a symphony of space, but a symphony that never repeats and continues to develop. If architecture is an extension of our bodies, shelter and actor for the fragile self, a liquid architecture is that self in the act of becoming its own changing shelter. Like us, it has an identity; but this identity is only revealed fully during the course of its lifetime.

Manovich has written that “a new media object is not something fixed once and for all, but something that can exist in different, potentially infinite versions”  and that “[n]ew media objects assure users that their choices—and therefore, their underlying thoughts and desires—are unique, rather than preprogrammed and shared with others.” To him, at least, this relates to consumer expectations in a post-industrial society, where we expect a customized experience very different from the standardized experience offered by mass-produced objects coming off an assembly line, writing:

If the logic of old media corresponded to the logic of industrial mass society, the logic of new media fits the logic of the post-industrial society which values individuality over conformity. In industrial mass society everybody was supposed to enjoy the same goods — and to have the same beliefs. This was also the logic of media technology. A media object was assembled in a media factory (such as a Hollywood studio). Millions of identical copies were produced from a master and distributed to all the citizens. Broadcasting, cinema, print media all followed this logic.

In a post-industrial society, every citizen can construct her own custom lifestyle and “select” her ideology from a large (but not infinite) number of choices. Rather than pushing the same objects/information to a mass audience, marketing now tries to target each individual separately. The logic of new media technology reflects this new social logic. Every visitor to a Web site automatically gets her own custom version of the site created on the fly from a database. The language of the text, the contents, the ads displayed — all these can be customized by interpreting the information about where on the network the user is coming from; or, if the user previously registered with the site, her personal profile can be used for this customization. According to a report in USA Today (November 9, 1999), “Unlike ads in magazines or other real-world publications, ‘banner’ ads on Web pages change with every page view. And most of the companies that place the ads on the Web site track your movements across the Net, ‘remembering’ which ads you’ve seen, exactly when you saw them, whether you clicked on them, where you were at the time and the site you have visited just before.”

In this way, not to be too cliched or pretentious about it but to simply paraphrase McLuhan, the medium is itself at least part of the message. Data, including our own personal data, abounds in an information overload and software has allowed us to customize, in some limited, interactive way, all our mediated experiences, so why not the experience of art?

It’s a reflection of our time, our endless chase for novelty. It’s like infinity, because there’s no end to it, but it’s also never fixed, it’s never done. Its fluid identity is revealed over time, to go back to Novak.

 

And a copy of a digital “object,” such as an mp3 or a movie file or a jpeg, is just as good as the “original.” Referring back to Benjamin in 1936, “the desire of contemporary masses to bring things “closer” spatially and humanly…is just as ardent as their bent toward overcoming the uniqueness of every reality by accepting its reproduction.”

Exactly.

 

Let’s go back to this idea of “interactivity.” I think there’s a lot to unpack there. For starters, how deep or meaningful is this interaction? You, yourself, admit that even this “customization” is “limited.” Manovich gives the example of artificial intelligence engines in video games, such as enemy or allied troops in first-person shooter video games or other drivers on the road in race car games, and notes that though the player/user/viewer/audience in these games can indeed interact with these AI elements, the interaction is limited to fighting or racing — the player can’t discuss philosophy or plan a meal with them. “In short,” he writes, “computer characters can display intelligence and skills only because the programs put severe limits on our possible interactions with them.”

Different pieces will have different levels of interactivity. Some will be entirely self-contained, independent of their environment (unless you consider shadows interactive) while others will react according to sound (music) inputs and others will allow audience members to use their smartphones to “control” what’s projected. How deep or meaningful that is is for audiences, themselves, to decide.

 

So you’re punting it back to the audience, again. That’s interesting — perhaps another symptom of our times. This has moral implications, again, referring back to Manovich’s 2001 text, The Language of New MediaI:

Do we want, or need, such freedom? As the pioneer of interactive filmmaking Graham Weinbren argued in relation to interactive media, making a choice involves a moral responsibility. By passing these choices to the user, the author also passes the responsibility to represent the world and the human condition in it. (This is paralleled by the use of phone or Web-based automated menu systems by all big companies to handle their customers; while the companies are doing this in the name of “choice” and “freedom,” one of the effects of this automation is that labor to be done is passed from company’s employees to the customer. If before a customer would get the information or buy the product by interacting with a company employee, now she has to spend her own time and energy in navigating through numerous menus to accomplish the same result.)

Just as phone and cable companies, in the name of automation that allegedly brings down consumer prices by reducing their labor costs but really ends up transferring that labor to consumers without, let’s face it, ever reducing the cost, you’re passing this work off to the audience.

And even this is nothing new. Even with “traditional” art, Marcel Duchamp famously said, in Houston, mind you, at a speech at Rice University in 1957, that “the viewer completes the artwork.” Roland Barthes likewise said as much in his 1967 essay “The Death of the Author,” as did Oscar Wilde, before him, in 1891 with “The Critic as Artist,” that meaning is created not by the author/artist in isolation, but rather by the audience/critic who perceives and interprets the art object — meaning lies somewhere between the text and its audience. The difference with immersive, interactive digital art is that the audience actually participates (to some degree) in the creation of the text.

Similarly, you might say, voters in a democracy have some choice among the limited options presented by different political parties, but in the end, whether they voted for the other party or they abstained from voting at all, as citizens, they bear at least some responsibility for whatever decisions are made — there’s no escaping that.

Call it unfair, but it is what it is. What is the alternative, anarchy?

 

Anarchy might not be too far off when you consider the information overload that follows the 24-hour news cycle, data-mining, and the like.

So, again, the medium, itself, is at least part of the message.

 

Another way that choice is limited is in the database, the database from which different images are drawn — images that are then subject to projection and/or manipulation by the new media artist and their algorithms. It is not, to borrow a metaphor from my own field, “The Library of Babel,” as described by Jorge Luis Borges, a library which contains all the conceivable books in every conceivable language, including all possible “errors” therein. Such a database would indeed be anarchic, or at least so sprawling as to be useless, though Borges imagines that such a library must also contain an index to its own contents.

But back to the artists’ intent and how that limits viewer interaction — is the artist, like the DJ running Serrato software, not exerting a curatorial choice in selecting the images that they will work with? (An obvious exception to this would be new media artists — such as Houston’s Mike Beradino — who either capture images of the audience/participants within the space of the installation and then manipulate those or who otherwise have an active image database, whether it allows for user inputs or some other feed.)

Of course, and that function of “choice” or “curation” is another reason why these artists have been chosen. We might be getting close to that time when the artist/programmer writes himself out of existence, where he is no longer necessary, and viewers can tailor and customize their experience to their hearts’ content in infinitely variable ways with an infinite supply of “source” material, but even then, I suspect that there will still be a place for “experts.”

 

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