Playstation meets Organism

Arie Altena

Second day: emulation in art and culture


(These are the notes and sketches I used for delivering my spoken introduction for the second day of Playstation meets Organism, emulation in a cultural context. A symposium organised by Mediamatic Magazine and Amsu, that took place on 1,2 and 3 september 2000. The lecturers on the second day were Trevor Pinch, Tom McCarthy and Lev Manovich.)

Close encounters with a word, or: How did we get stuck with emulation? A short recapitulation of Mediamatic's recent intellectual history.

Why, in the first place, did we, the editors of Mediamatic, pick emulation as a subject for a symposium? How did it come about that we became interested and then fascinated by emulation?

Where computertechnology and art meet perspectives that were unthought of before seem to unfold - ... alright, that’s what we know: computertechnology has brought forth a lot of artworks and a lot of cultural expressions that were unthought of before. But also where the discourses of computertechnology and the discourses of art criticism meet, new perspectives seem to unfold. The word emulation seems to open such a perspective - a new one? We will see. At least for us, at Mediamatic, the word opened a perspective, or made it possible to make other, new connections, (to use a different metaphor, one that I like more). You stumble on a word, a concept that turns out to be used in different worlds, might it tie these worlds together? Is it something that connects, that renews our view of art, of culture, of reality? Is it something that leads to a better understanding, a better comprehension, of art, of culture, of our world?

So we became intellectually tied-up in emulation. Through the concept of emulation we thought we were beginning to see, in a possibly new way, how different aspects of culture and technology are connected. Significant connections that we were blind to before, seemed to appear. It’s not that we discovered some sort of new culture hidden in the dark alleys of 21century metropoles, or secluded valleys of the internet. The story of how we became tied-up in emulation is a story about finding or emphasizing connections between art, culture, technology and society, under the label emulation. (I should say: that's how I see it.)

I will not give answers, or delve deep into what these new connections that we think we are seeing signify. We hope the speakers we invited will give us some insight.

It began with the quite sudden popularity of games-emulation. It seemed that at once everyone got into playing the old videogames from one’s youth on the big Pentiums and big Macs normally used for webdesign and -surfing. One already had Virtual PC to trick a Mac into acting like a PC, then one had also a dozen or so emulators on one’s machine to play old Amiga, Atari, Commodore64, Nintendo and console games. MAME is the greatest of emulators; it makes hundreds of old arcade-games available for PC and Mac. That’s a lot of cultural heritage! Nostalgia seemed to be the key to understand this phenomenon. But is it only nostalgia? Might it also be that exactly these games are aesthetically attractive, because of the pureness of form? Some of the earlier games are almost like modernist abstract art. Omar Munoz’s article Emulated Youth deals with this phenomenon.

What stuck with us was the concept: a piece of software replaces a machine on which a game (software) was running, so now this old game (software) can run on a new machine. In other words: one machine acts like another; software that “emulates” hardware. Bit & bytes going through one machine that makes this machine act like another box.

But what is emulation exactly? Grabbing a dictionary will not help much - they’re not up to date technologically & define emulation the classical way as “effort or ambition to equal or excel another in any act or quality”. Which kind of is right (the PC equals the Vectrex-platform thanks to Vectrex-emulation), but misses the point: how is it done? When trying to explain what emulation is one easily takes refuge to using worlds like “simulate” (the PC simulates the Vectrex-platform). Which is not right, I think, specifically because emulation is something different from simulation, or imitation. (The PC doesn’t simulate or imitate, or ape the Vectrex platform, although to a non-differentiating onlooker it might be as if this is what is happening).

How then is emulation different from simulation and imitation? Mabye today’s presentations will yield, at least implicitly, some answers to it. I went to a programmer & just asked him: what’s emulation. After some thinking he came up with an analogy that I like so much that I will tell it to you - regardless if the analogy is totally right. Take a flight simulator of a Boeing 747. Aspiring pilots learn to fly in a flight simulator. The simulator looks and maybe even feels like a real plane for the one handling the joystick and looking at the panels, but the thing doesn’t fly. A flight emulator of a Boeing 747 might not look like a Boeing 747 - also not for the one steering it; it might be made of paper, it might be driven by pedals not by kerosene, but it flies, and it behaves exactly like a Boeing 747. The key to understanding emulation seems to lie in this: emulators behave exactly like the system they emulate. Emulating seems to be about behavior.

Emulation is the principle on which any computer is based: a higher level programming language emulates the instructions of a lower level programming language, emulating machine language, emulating ASCII, emulating strings of zero’s and ones. And in the computer industry a piece of hardware, a chip, first exists as software-instructions, only later the chip is actually made. The PentiumIII chip existed first as software, as code running on a few interconnected computers. As software the Pentium III consists out of zeros and ones but it behaves exactly the same as the little piece of silicium that’s now in so many computers.

emulation in electronic music
Emulation is also nothing new for the adepts of electronic music. Synthesizers are often conceptualized as emulators, machines that were made to emulate “real instruments”; the famous strings from a box. I will not go into this, because Trevor Pinch knows much more about this than I do. Just remind you that a YamahaDX7 can sound just like a French Horn - the behavior is, well, more or less the same, but the instrument looks totally different. In this field something interesting has happened, a development that can be compared to what happened in the games world.

Popular electronic music (techno, house, elektro) has always used old rhythm boxes and old synthesizers. Wholes genres are defined by the use (or "misuse") of certain machines (like the Roland 303 for house). "Vintage classics" - old Moogs, Korgs etc. became also much sought after, because of the specific sounds these machines could make. (Synthesizers maybe made to emulate other instruments, or to make any sound imaginable, became sought after for their own specific sound...)

So if you want to use the sound of a certain Korg, you might try to lay your hands on one - if you got the money. But if you haven’t got the money there’s a solution. The market is full of computerapplications using MIDI, that emulate the old much sought after synthesizers. These software synthesizers emulate the "real" machines. So also for some music the computer has become the general emulating machine for old synthesizers and other instruments. In a sense it’s emulators emulating emulators. Debug, a German magazine about “electronic lifestyles” always has two pages of reviews of these emulators. (Interestingly, the goal of these emulators is often is not to copy the old machine exactly, but to give the user more or less the same sound possibilities as the emulated machine in a usable form).

The more specific question, and an interesting question, is: what does the use of emulation mean for music in practice. What is the culture 'behind' it. What are the cultural expressions that are made possible by it? How did this culture evolve? How does it influence the making of music? (It’s about the relationship between technology and cultural expression); how do synthesizers and emulators change music and musical practice. What was emulation used for? Why did the concept come up anyway? Is the economical explanation sufficient, is it simply about "well, it's possible technically, so let's use it?" What can we learn from the history of music emulation?

emulation as preserving of history
What the games and the music stories suggest also is that emulators are a key to preserving history. Thanks to emulation we will not have to be afraid that cultural heritage will disappear. If the last Commodore64 dies from siliciumfatigue, the games will live on. This was recognized already, of course, in the world of libraries and archives; that almost invisible avant-garde of digitalization. Here they are dreaming of the Big Emulator, a program that will run on, well maybe any platform, and that, in any case, will be able to read any digital document, no matter of it is PDF, Wordstar or Word2000, no matter if it’s statistical information of from a NASA-satellite or a picture of Rembrandt. In this realm emulation is a practical solution - like in the gamesworld, like in the computer industry, like in music - but there are no cultural, aesthetic or artistic aspects, or considerations connected with it, as there are in the games and the music story.

emulation for art critics
And then there’s the classically schooled art critic. Brought up with Panofsky, iconography and Gombrich. For this art critic emulation suggests, I think, in the first place the Rennaissance doctrine of imitatio et aemulatio. To reach perfection as an artist one first translates, and then imitates the masters. If one is a master at imitation, one can try to emulate the master. (Think of all those 16th century writers of sonnets who spend years and years imitating the supreme example of Petrarca; think of Vondel imitating the example of Greek drama).

Is this the same emulation? and if not, why not? Does this aemulatio share certain features with computer-emulation? In the sense that Dante’s Divina Commedia shares, and thereby preserves, certain, maybe the most important elements, of the sixth book of the Aeneas. But here, it also changes the model, makes it more modern, more up to date. Might that be a difference with computer emulation? (Is emulation a certain relationship between two systems?) Or could one hold that The Divina Commedia is an emulation of the sixth book of the Aeneas because it behaves in the same way, has the same effects on the reader as the sixth book of the Aeneas?

Is there, now we get on very slippery ground, some deeper literary code of which as well the sixth book of the Aeneas as the Divina Commedia are an expression? Or could this just be a different voicing of something we already know, that there’s the theme of going to the under/netherworld to meet once ancestors and hear speaking about the future? A theme of which both the Divina Commedia and the sitxth book of the Aeneas are an expression? I’m just wondering, and this might be nonsense or a truism, but then, it might not.

Enter the art critic educated in postmodern times. He hears emulation and thinks simulation, simulacra and Baudrillard. No surprise, since emulation seems to concerns the relationship between two texts, states, systems, models. To remind you all, Baudrillard introduced his infamous concepts simulacra and hyperreality in his media-theory in the eighties, in essays like La precession des simulacres. That one became a postmodern classic. In this essay he identified 4 phases of the image, 4 phaes in the relationship between sign and real, in which gradually the real disappears. 1. the image represents a fundamental reality (realism) 2. the image masks and perverts a fundamental reality (pre-modernity), 3. the image masks the absence of a fundamental reality (also modernity, in a later stage, acoording to some postmodernity), 4. the image bears no relationship whatsoever with a fundamental reality, it is its own simulacrum (hyperreality, postmodernity). Phase 4 explains why Baudrillard could write that the Gulf War never took place. His view wasn’t very strange to most of the postmodern TV-watchers, so it quickly became a truism, a dead-end for any discussion. Still the word simulation and simulacra seem to haunt the brains of those postmodern art critics; The simulation theory is like a trap. Could emulation be the magic word that finally rids the world and view of culture of this last postmodern art critic of the deadly theoretical illusions of hyperreality? Could emulation open up another way of the relationship between work of art and referent, between work of art and reality, society, media; a new phase?

Did we go from representation (media represent reality, art represents reality) to simulation (media simulate a reality, art simulates a reality, art creates an own reality through simulation), and now from simulation to emulation (because everything is code anyway, every set of codes can be emulated, and either DNA or the digital code is the master code, and silicium or “life” is the platform, we can run any program...; so to emulation as the recognized base-principle of....well....of how the world functions? Or am I losing track here....

modelling with rules
Now let's look at all the modeling of the stock exchange, or the computermodels (simulations) used in for instance meteorology. These models are software, algoritms, rules zeroes and ones. These rulebased systems, - isn’t a rule-based system like a game? - often predict very well what happens in reality. So are they a real good emulation of aspects of the world? Could it even follow from there that we kind of believe that reality behaves like a rule-based system, a very complex one, that might have grown like generative algorithms, from just a few very simple rules?

What this all means is in the first place that we are already adapted to viewing the world, reality, what’s part of reality, as consisting out of code, as something that might be translated into another code, that translates back to some mastercode. Might it then be that emulation is like the general relationship between, well, sign and real, or rather one set of codes and another set of codes, and that we are turning towards believing that everything is codeable, that everything is in the end, code?

A quite typical indication of this believe, this view of the world, is the amount of films in which reality is seen as, experienced as a game (Lola Rennt for example). Or look at Gentech. In Gentech we, human beings, are the playstation on which the code, the game, is running.

Or will we find out, from looking closely to what emulation is, that this is at least a too simplified view, or maybe that this isn’t about emulation at all?

questions and perspectives
So now we have computers that emulate other computers, computers that emulate other machines (synthesizers), texts that emulate other texts, and films that emulate games, even possibly reality that is an emulation generated from simple rules.

So we, the editors and writers of Mediamatic quickly found out that emulation might not be the most well known term for the general public, and neither for art critics, but it is really is really everywhere. Does this mean anything?

And I have already identified some questions, I'll sum them up again, raise a few more, hoping there’s an interesting one amongst them, not assuming all those questions will be answered.

What does emulation mean in different fields? Is the emulation from biology the same as the emulation on which a computer is based? Is that exactly the same emulation as the emulation of a French Horn by a Moog synthesizer? And the same emulation as the emulatio in the Renaissance idea of translatio - imitatio - aemulatio? Is emulation is specific relationship between two states? models? systems? Something different from simulation or representation or analogy? (That’s the philosophical question). Then, what are connotations that come with the term once you start to use it in the field of fore instance art criticism? (Does it involve the notion of authenticity?) Do you see or invent new connections between cultural expressions and technology? Does it lead one to view the relationship between society, culture and technology in a new way? Is emulation really everywhere? Is emulation sort of at the core of our culture? Is putting emulation at the center of attention a way of stressing the importance of the level of the code - a level on which everything can be....emulated?

We will see.

rough version
Arie Altena
august 2000