Arie Altena

Everyday art

IME in a non-modern perspective

Arie Altena

This article outlines part of the vision that underlies (or could underlie) the department of Interactive Media and Environments of the Frank Mohr Institute, abbreviated IME. How does IME see art, technology, science and the computer? - whereby the last term links the first three. What are the consequences of this vision? The answer that I am attempting to formulate is a possible answer, coloured by practical experience as tutor to the IME students and as a teacher of theory. I construct this vision step by step, and at the end it will become apparent why this piece is called 'IME in a non-modern perspective'.

names and labels
Names are bothersome. What the name IME covers is not so evident. With 'Painting' you know right away where you stand (even if it is characteristic of the present situation that Painting has long been a matter of more than paint). Try to find a label for what the IME students produce and the idea of the studies and you stumble upon a problem. There are plenty of labels: computer art, electronic art, instable media, interactive art, generative art, algorithmic art, technological art, information art. They are all more or less correct, but none completely covers what is meant. Of course IME is about the computer. But it is not correct to say that IME is the department of computer art.

What is IME, then? What sort of work is made there? Look around the work spaces and you'll see computers, monitors betraying that OSX, Linus and XP are running, soldering irons, little robots, electrical wires, cables and connectors, DV cameras, Nintendo controllers, Conrad catalogues, computer programme manuals, books about twentieth century art and computer art, an electric organ and a lathe, drawings, newspaper clippings, notebooks, and so on. Computers, but not only computers, electronics but not only electronics.

people x computers
IME is about work made by people in collaboration with computers. That might sound banal, but it says something fundamental about the status of technology. Do we talk about a department of painting as a place where work is made by artists in collaboration with the material (paint, brushes, canvas, knives)? What the above sentence indicates is the insight that human and non-human actors (artists and computers) both contribute creatively to the realisation of a work, which can just as well be a free-standing object as an interactive installation or a screen-based computer piece. Bruno Latour, who is not an artist but a philosopher, refers to 'I and my Macintosh' as the makers of the diagrams in his books.[1] This humorous conclusion reflects well what I mean. The computer is not a piece of equipment of which the artist is lord and master. The artist makes the work in dialogue with the computer. The working process proceeds in an interactive dialogue between the various actors. This means that you have to understand what the computer is and be able to communicate with it, so to speak. The computer is an active mediator. This relationship to technology is crucial for IME.

In short, therefore, it is a question of art that is made with the computer and in which the possibilities of the computer are explored in an artistic and culturally meaningful manner.

This description has to be defined in two ways. Firstly, it's not about using the computer or software as ready-made tools. An example of this would be editing a film with Final Cut Pro, where the end result is a linear film. Secondly, it's not purely a question of medium-specific research into the possibilities of the computer as a means of artistic expression. Such research does fall within IME's field of attention, but is not it's focus. We are now in 2004 and we have gone beyond this technological modernism, past the stage of experimental research for the sake of experiment. IME's goal is the creation of culturally meaningful work, work that evokes an aesthetic experience or is conceptual, and connected with the world that people live in.[2]

That the computer plays an important, if not constitutive, role at all levels within this environment is self-evident. That a lot of work made in the framework of IME is related to the role that computers play in everyday life, whether because the work is about surveillance and data-mining, the fear of technology or about retro-computing and Atari games, speaks for itself, although it's not a necessity.

the computer as meta-medium
The computer, therefore, is not a 'handtool', but a 'thinktool' [3]. The computer is not a multimedia PC or iMac with a GUI and some standard software - a closed, shiny box with a keyboard and a monitor - computer in this context means literally a 'calculator', a machine that, as Alan Turing's definition puts it, can be programmed to behave like any other machine. The computer is the meta-medium that is able to emulate all other media. It is with this meta-medium that the IME students are working. Hence their'output' is not bound to one single medium.

What are the characteristics of this meta-medium? In his influential book The Language of New Media [4], Lev Manovich names five distinguishing features of new media that are all related to the computer. The first two, numerical representation and modularity (programmed objects consist of 'discrete samples') are basic characteristics, while automation, variability (objects are not fixed) and transcoding (objects can be transformed into other codes) are derived from them. In short, media become programmable through numerical representation. A new media object can be subjected to algorithmic manipulation.

programmable media
Thanks to the computer as a meta-medium, media become programmable. What are the consequences of this? What 'vistas' are opened by the programmability of media? I would like to point out two aspects: algorithmic (rule-based) art and interactivity.

Programmability makes it possible to generate art with algorithms, thus creating algorithmic art with a constantly different or changing output. An example of this is the generating of computer images by means of formulas, whether coupled or not to other parameters. This has in the meantime become a flourishing genre, with John Maeda, Casey Reas and Golan Levin as contemporary, successful exponents.[5]

It goes without saying that programmability enables work to be made that changes under the influence of a user or other factors. In an interactive dialogue with the user, the computer handles data and provides the user with new output, upon which the user reacts, and so on. Games are a good metaphor for understanding such work. The maker of a game offers building blocks and the rules determining how players can or should deal with the building blocks (and the rules). Whoever plays the game carries out the work of art that is potentially present in the rules and the building blocks. (Because of the central role of rules this art could also be called algorithmic).

In this context the term user is often used instead of spectator or reader [6]. At the same time the question arises as to the role of the artist, or more precisely, the issue of authorship. In literary studies there has been much theorising about this, going back for example to Umberto Eco's Opera Aperta [7], about the poetics of the open work. In Hamlet on the Holodeck, her book about narrativity in electronic media (from games to interactive text), Janet Murray introduces the term 'procedural authorship' for such an author of interactive work. She writes, 'Procedural authorship means writing the rules by which the text appears as well as writing the texts themselves. It means writing the rules for the interactor's involvement, that is, the conditions under which things will happen in response to the participant's actions... The procedural author creates not just a set of scenes but a world of narrative possibilities'. [8] She compares this author with a choreographer of an algorithmic dance: 'In electronic narrative the procedural author is like a choreographer who supplies the rhythms, the context, and the set of steps that will be performed. The interactor, whether as navigator, protagonist, explorer, or builder, makes use of this repertoire of possible steps and rhythms to improvise a particular dance among the many, many possible dances the author has enabled'. [9] Although the work made at IME is usually not narrative and by no means always demands the user's active participation, these remarks about procedural authorship do, I think, characterise the authorship of the artist who makes work in collaboration with the computer: you offer image, text or sound, you establish the rules determining how and when something happens and you think about how to shape the user/spectator's behaviour.[10]

Both aspects, algorithmicity and interactivity are not essentially dependent on the computer. There exists algorithmic art that requires no computer.[11] But because of the computer, and particularly since its wide dissemination, the artistic and cultural exploration of algorithmic art has expanded enormously. It becomes 'logical', as it were, to make such work. While previously the most common form of art was a 'finished' product (a linear text, a composition, a piece of sculpture or an unchanging installation), it is now natural to make a changeable, interactive work. We can also point to the fact that both algorithmicity and interactivity are 'basic features' of today's information society.

art and science
Stephen Wilson, in his encyclopaedic survey Information Arts, mentions an important lesson to be learned from early computer art: 'Many "high tech" artists believe they have addressed the future by becoming computer artists working with digital image, sound and interactive multimedia. They have misunderstood the real significance of artists' work with computers during the last decade and a half: the fact that artists were experimenting with microcomputers at almost the same time as other developers and researchers. Artists were not merely using the results of research conducted by others, but were actually participating as researchers themselves.' [12] He argues that the best work 'is likely to derive from a deeper comprehension of the underlying scientific and technological principles that have guided the computers development, and from participation in the research flow that points to the technological future.' [13]

What Wilson is saying here is important [14]: there is art that comes into being in direct collaboration with technological development. Art and science 'profit' from this, each in their own way and in their own field. This collaborating and operating 'on the edge' of technological developments is what IME is striving for. Operating 'on the edge' can involve collaborating with academic scientific institutions, but it can also mean seeking connections with developers of open source software, free software and closed source artistic software.

The question as to what art and science mean for each other precisely is beyond the scope of this article, as is the question of the difference in knowledge production within the two fields.[15] Wilson correctly points out that there are artists who are also scientists, and artists whose work is based on scientific research, as well as scientists whose research is suspiciously similar to art. Sometimes the question, is it art or science?, is irrelevant, since the work is significant in the framework of both science and art. This goes, to mention three well-known examples, for Eadweard Muybridge's photographs, the work of Felix Hess and Tom Ray's Tierra.

artistry, at the centre of a network
We have stated that the IME field is characterised by artists who make art in collaboration with technology. We have also seen that artists do not have total control over the final work of art in the case of algorithmic or interactive work. Further we have seen that artists collaborate with technicians and scientists. But what does collaboration look like in practice?

Work is seldom made in total isolation. An IME student, for example, works together with a programmer from a research institute that develops or adapts software. Or she works together with 'boffins' in a laboratory developing electronics and robotics. In my view, it is not sufficient to regard this collaboration as 'technical assistance' (the modernist term for the contribution by others). Collaboration is characterised by the fact that all actors in the collaboration change as a result of the collaboration, they learn from each other, for example, and start thinking differently about their work. The word 'assistance' misses this dimension of transformation. (This doesn't mean that all the actors in the collaboration also become artists).[16]

Or students collaborate among themselves: the one is good in MAX/MSP, the other in graphic design, the third is good in photography. This kind of collaboration is important as wel because not infrequently different aspects and media are used. It is no accident that an increasing part of the artistic production in this field is credited to collectives, while, even if it is credited to one person, his or her place in the network of 'electronic artists' or an affiliation with one of the well-known labs (MIT Medialab, ZKM) is abundantly clear. This is nothing really new, nor does it mean that the model of twentieth century cinema (only realisable by a team) has to be adopted by electronic art.

What I am concerned with is the image of an artist who stands in the middle of all kinds of collaborative processes, whereby art arises out of these processes. The artist mobilises networks in order to make her work. In that network we find not only people, but also non-human actors, such as the computer. The author of the artwork is the artist; she is in the middle of the process, she is the centre where the connections coincide. This image differs from that of the modernist artist in his studio (almost always a he). The transformation taking place is that of the myth of the artist in his studio to that of the artist as the intersection in a network.[17] Headstrongness, finding your own way, letting yourself be led by unexpected ideas, experiments and tinkering continue to be as important as ever in this vision. What is changing is the importance attached to collaborating, to mobilising connections.

Mobilising connections also takes place at the level of the artwork: what an artwork does, in the world, can also be seen as the mobilisation of connections; it constructs contexts for itself, contexts to which it attaches itself. From this it derives its cultural significance.

Beyond modernism and modernity
With the help of a number of theorists I would like to flesh out this idea about art and artistry and to provide some background. I shall do this in three steps, three indications of the position of art beyond modernism, beyond postmodernism - part of modernism but minus the belief in it - and beyond modernity.

1. Beyond medium-specificity
Clement Greenberg, the icon of modernist criticism, claimed that every medium possessed its own aesthetic and visuality. He looked at art from a medium-specific perspective. For current artistic practice that is mostly untenable. A medium-specific criticism may be useful, but will only be able to examine a part of the work. Jorine Seijdel puts the issue into words as follows: 'In recent decades it has become increasingly problematic to maintain a media-based typology within art, a fundamental typology as was deployed in modernist theory and practice for the sake of structuring and legitimising cultural discourses and institutions. The very generic nature and vagueness of new terms like 'media art' and 'installation art' already indicates this; these notions give no definite answer about the medium itself and are themselves almost tautological..'[18] Seijdel seeks the solution to media theory in Bolter and Grusin's idea of remediation, a recycling of McLuhan's idea that the content of a new medium is an old medium. 'Remediation', according to Seijdel, 'presupposes a mutual connectedness of representational forms, and thus breaks with the modernist myth of the new, in which both technology and art are all too often imprisoned.'[19]

Instead of a modernist vision in which the worlds of technology and art are separated from each other, in which media are characterised by essentialist qualities and the work of art is autonomous, we are faced with a vision in which the focus is on connections. Media are part of a network of cultural, technological, social and economic contexts. Media distinguish themselves from each other through specific combinations. We have ended up in a post-medial (or if you like trans-medial) age, in which art should be viewed in terms of its content and analysed on the basis of the combinations it makes, and the links it creates, with contexts, with the world.

Radical mediocrity
Henk Oosterling argues that art has become 'radically mediocre'.[20] This sounds like a rejection of contemporary art, but he means it literally: middling, medium. According to Oosterling, art is not an activity that takes place separately from society, art represents an inter-est, a being-in-the-middle. Oosterling's vision is marked by a media perspective: we ourselves, he says, have also become radically mediocre; we have allowed ourselves to be embraced by the media with which we communicate and transport ourselves. In this view, neither art nor the individual are autonomous, they are parts of the 'inter', they consist of the connections that they are concerned with. Oosterling then claims: 'Maybe what was for a very long time seen as a purely theoretical pseudo-problem is now actually taking place: the end of art. This does not mean that artists are ceasing to make work (...) "Art" has not come to grief through a lack of interest, its resounding success has integrated it into life.'[21] We cannot speak of a domain of art separated from the world. Art is everywhere, almost invisible to the modernist eye.

For my third step I call in the help of the above-mentioned French philosopher Bruno Latour. I want to use his ideas to clarify why the focus on the 'inter' and on connections represents a definitive farewell to modernity and modernism. Latour is mainly known for his studies of 'science in action'. His remarks about the 'modernist settlement' are a fascinating description of the problem of modernity.

The 'modernist settlement' is Latour's term for the set of agreements whereby politics and society are separated from nature.[22] This means that political issues can never be answered in connection with nature. Politics in the modernist settlement is only about order in a society of people. Latour advocates a non-modern vision, whereby the separation of nature and society is replaced by the notion of 'collective', which has to do with the connections between people, nature and non-human actors.[23]

My reason for citing Latour is to show the scope of the focus on connections rather than on autonomous areas, objects or subjects. It implies a vision of art beyond the modernist frame of thinking that has characterised the West for centuries. It is a breathtaking paradigm shift. Breathtaking, if you reason on the basis of modernism or modernity, for we've not yet finished with modernity by any means. If you reason on the basis of everyday practice then it's... quite everyday.

In the beginning I wrote that IME is about art made with the computer and where the possibilities of the computer are explored in an artistic and culturally meaningful way. Because the computer is the mediator of connections par excellence, a mediator that we use on a daily basis, perhaps this art is the art par excellence of this 'non-modern' age.

1. Such as: 'Alas, I and my Macintosh have not been able to do better than Figure 6.5' Bruno Latour, Pandora's Hope, Essays on the Reality of Science Studies, Cambridge Mass. Harvard UP, 1999, p.194
2. For this see also the aesthetics of John Dewey, the American pragmatic philosopher. In Art as Experience he shows that the aesthetic experience is not separate from everyday life but is a part of it. The aim of his book is 'to restore continuity between the refined and intensified forms of experience that are works of art and the everyday events, doings, and sufferings that are universally recognized to constitute experience' (John Dewey, Art as Experience, Pedigree Books, New York, 1934 (1980) p.3) . There has been a revival of interest in his pragmatic aesthetics in recent years thanks to the publications by Richard Shusterman.
3. Oliver Grau, Virtual Art, from Illusion to Immersion, MIT Press Cambridge Mass, 2003, p.255
4. Lev Manovich, The Language of New Media, MIT Press, Cambridge Mass, 2001, p.27ff. In this context it makes no difference whether one shares Manovich's view of new media art as a continuation of the historical avant-garde, since his summary of principles transcends this view.
5. See also Arthur Elsenaar, 'Programming' in IME 2003, final exam catalogue, p.12-15
6. User_Mode was the title of an exhibition and conference about interactive art at Tate Modern in 2003.
7. Umberto Eco, Opera Aperta, Forma en indeterminazione nelle poetiche contemporanee, Bompiano, Milaan, 1962.
8. Janet H. Murray, Hamlet on the Holodeck, The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace, MIT Press Cambridge Mass, 1997, p.152
9. Murray 1997, p.153
10. Behaviour authorship is a broader concept that also applies to designing games, marketing campaigns and parties.
11. John Cage's chance compositions can be regarded as non-computer-based algorithmic art. Cage designed rules that, carried out by musicians, produce a piece of music that would be different each time it was performed. Another classic example is the work of OULIPO, Ouvroir de Littˇrature Potentielle, to which Raymond Queneau and Georges Perec belonged. Long before that there existed permutational poetry and compositions determined by throwing dice. Notice that I use the word 'interactive' here in a narrow sense. I'm not talking about the interpretation of a work of art as an interactive process. Such interaction does not change the sequence of a text, for example, or the sequence of scenes in a film.
12. Stephen Wilson, Information Arts, Intersections of Art, Science and Technology, MIT Press Cambridge Mass, 2002, p. 36
13. Wilson 2002, p. 6
14. Although you could question whether, in the perspective that I am trying to sketch here, 'underlying' is the right metaphor for underlining the importance of scientific and technological principles.
15. It is not my intention here to bring up the debate about whether artists do research, what sort of knowledge that produces, or how it differs from scientific research. In the light of the recent BAMA reforms in arts education these issues can count on considerable interest. Witness, for example, the Artistic Research symposium in Amsterdam in 2003, a special issue of Boekman journal 58/59, 2004, about Art and Science and an issue of Metropolis M on the theme of search/replace, volume 25 #2, 2004, dedicated to art and research, with articles by Mika Hannula and Koen Brams. Nor do I wish to go into the fascinating question as to the distinction between poeisis and techne, science, technology and art. From the viewpoint of 'technological art' this is a complex issue, and once again we seem to end up with a view of art where the distinctions upon which modernity is based cannot be maintained.
16. It is important to emphasise that artists are certainly able to learn programming, even though programming remains a profession in itself. In general an enormous progress can be observed in the artistic work when students themselves get going with programming toolkits like Proce55ing, MAX/MSP and Jitter. See also Elsenaar 2003.
17. For the idea of artist in the middle I am indebted to Noortje Marres who focusses on these issues in the series of six columns she wrote for Metropolis M (volume 24#4, 2003 - 25#3, 2004). The modernist artist was not really so isolated, but the fact that we no longer regard him as so autonomous and isolated is a result of insight into the constitutive contribution of the other actors.
18. Jorinde Seijdel, 'Het digitale verdwijnpunt, van ik zie naar zie ik', in Jeroen Boomgaard en Bart Rutten (eds.), De magnetische tijd, videokunst in Nederland 1975-1985, NAi Uitgevers, Rotterdam, 2003, p.157-168, p.159
19. Seijdel 2003 p.159
20. Henk Oosterling, Radicale middelmatigheid, Boom, Amsterdam, 2000. The wordplay works better in Dutch.
21. Oosterling 2000, p. 141
22. As described by Latour in the glossary of Pandora's Hope from 1999: '(The modernist settlement) has sealed off into incommensurable problems questions that cannot be solved separately and have to be tackled all at once: the epistemological question of how we can know the outside world, the psychological question of how a mind can maintain a connection with an outside world, the political question of how we can keep order in society, and the moral question of how we can live a good life-to sum up "out there", "in there", "down there" and "up there".'
23. His idea of a parliament of things should also be seen in this connection. An exhibition dedicated to this, partly put together by Latour, will take place in early 2005.

Published in the exam catalogue of the Frank Mohr Instituut, Groningen, 2004, ISBN 9080612790
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Arie Altena