Decoder for Digital Art and its meaning (Post 3)

Book Review: Digital Art and Meaning by Roberto Simanowski

Published 2011 by University of Minnesota Press

Interactive Art – a new world order?                   

Post 3 of 3: Final Chapters – 4, 5, 6: Interactive Installations, Mapping Art, Real Time Web Sculpture are covered

Chapter 4 Interactive Installations

Turn to Interactivity – The author discusses the shift from artists producing stand-alone objects where dialogue is conducted from a distance, to interactive art where dialogue is created within the moments of interaction.  The meaning of these types of digital works must be formulated by the inclusion of physical experiences. Consider the act of watching someone dance or actually being the dancer – how would you describe your experiences? In one position you are the receiver and in the other you are receiver/transmitter.  Simanowski discusses our “culture of presence”; our increasing needs to experience the moment. Is this need resulting in the death of deep reflection and understanding? Simanowski offers information on the types of responses a creator might induce from participants; atmospheric perception, rebellious interaction, and requiring participants to give up something to gain something. I call these types: alert the senses, don’t tell me “no”, and quid pro quo. Is the participant negotiating the outcome or is the freedom to choose just an illusion? (Examples: Text Rain (1999) – Utterback and Achituv    RE: Positioning Fear (1997) – Rafael Lozano-Hemmer   Very Nervous System (1986-1990) – Rokeby

Understanding the Grammar of Interaction – Simanowski starts off by remarking on the example JCJ –Junkman (1995) by Ken Feingold; a response to the out of control data imposed on the public. I laughed when I first experienced this work. However, once I understood the artist’s intent, the symbolic truth of the work was visible to me. How does this work speak to you? The author’s discussion turns to the body as a tool; as the digital artist’s paint brush. Here he expresses firm belief that physicality is not the end of the experience, stating, “The body is only the means to trigger cognitive process.” (Example:  Body Movies (2001) – Rafael Lozano-Hemmer   Recollections 4.5 (2005) – Edward Tannenbaum )

Public Art as Deprivation – The author reviews virtual architectures as they relate to construction and deconstruction. The meanings of such spectral and temporal works are defined by the imagery, audio, time, and place of the event. Do you think this work is art, or is it more related to symbolism like fireworks on the 4th of July?  (Example:  Vectorial Elevation (1999) – Rafael Lozano-Hemmer )

Immersion and Distance – Simanowski suggests that participants in interactive works must actively seek the place of total physical sensation. Then, once the physical experience is over, they must take time to reflect on the deeper meaning of the work. So, considering the experience from a distance of space and time ultimately results in a long term greater understanding of the work.  With all the visual stimuli in our active lives, can we truly achieve full immersion in any moment? 

Chapter 5 Mapping Art

Database and Mapping in Contemporary Art – All data is stored digitally in numeric code giving it all the same physical form. These codes rest in disconnected states ready to be transformed into a personalized usable form by the requester. Simanowski compares the use of found data in making art to Marcel Duchamp’s ready-mades and also to photography, with its ability to accurately capture exact moments in time.  (Example: Laws of Cool: Knowledge work and the culture of information – Alan Liu    Making Visible the Invisible (2005) – George Legrady )

Beautification, Photography, Content, and Form – Simanowski discusses Duchamp’s sabotage of art with his “Fountain” (1917), a porcelain urinal submitted to an exhibit, and subsequently rejected by the exhibit committee. Ultimately Duchamp’s work was re-sabotaged when the art world decided it marked a major point in the aesthetics of 20th century art. Beauty is determined by personal values.  The eyes of my left brain friends light up when discussing math and science, like mine do when observing a work of great art.  Do you think “numeric systems” rise to an aesthetic of artistic beauty?

Mapping as Naturalism – Naturalist writers from the first half of the 20th century were obsessed with describing things exactly; refusing to include any subjective embellishments. Simanowski comments, “The naturalist writer was considered to undertake an experiment, similar to a chemist’s…” He further claims that digital mapping has a greater ability to maintain the exact structure of an object or event than the early naturalist writers.  What art aesthetic does clinical data present to you?

Mapping Postmodernism – The author acknowledges our shift from content informed communication to our fascination with the techniques of visual formats and momentary presence. He likens contemporary culture to post modernism, remarking that contemporary reactions are intuitive and turn away from fact based responses.  Are we living in a “perception is reality world”, without concern for facts?  Do we seek newsfeeds that support our opinions without balancing and broadening our understanding with information from other perspectives?

 Chapter 6 Real Time Web Sculpture

Collage and Collaboration in Literature – Simanowski explains the art of literary collage and collaborative works starting with the 1920 Dadaist, through the Surrealist, to those working in the digital field today.  Readers are given instructions on the technique of collaborating with previously authored works; the outcome reflects the “remix” by the new creators, as it rejects the sensibilities/intent of the original writer. Collaboration forces individuals to receive and respond to concepts formed outside of their personal thoughts/actions; concepts that likely would not develop by an individual working alone.  There is no single author of these works.

Text as Sculpture, Music, Cinema – The author uses the installation “Listening Post”, by statistician Mark Hansen and multi-media artist Ben Rubin (2000 and 2001), to explain the topic of this section. He describes “movements” in this multi-media presentation. Each section of the presentation reveals the text information, but in different and progressive formats. At times it seemed Simanowski was discussing a musical score, not digital text download. The blend of visual and audio to create multiple layers of deepening meanings is explored.

Turning Linguistic into Visual Art – Is digital media art really “new thought”, or a redo of earlier theories in electronic formats? Simanowski delves into opposing thoughts on the digital social chat rooms; asking if they present real community or isolated individuals at keyboards. Can the short moments of human connection through digital devices be considered actual conversations, a true society / community? Is the real digital community actually numeric code, created by us, within digital systems? Is this system now using us to stay alive?  Perhaps we are just house servants for and slaves of a yet to be identified community of numeric codes.

Balkanization and Orchestration of Text – In this section, the author provides several examples on fragmentation of text that destructs or redirects meaning, and the management of automated text systems. Simanowski offers insights relative to the digital world’s impact on surveillance, privacy, and democratic policy. He remarks that humans seek utopia through acceptance of or denial of diversity; using the term diversity in its most wide reaching scope. In my opinion, Simanowski reveals the potential horrors of a world running on digital, so automated and homogenized, that the individual voice is annihilated by multitudes vocalizing at once; where we compartmentalize our relationships with like-minded spirits; where in-depth studies become bullet points in digitized presentations and viewers hold these as fact based truths, and; where digital conversations between “friends” consist of a few cryptic words that then reference a link to materials created by someone else. Without the use of language, do we know what the sender really thinks about the visuals they forwarded? Is this the way we now have in-depth dialogue with each other? “  Simanowski asserts, “If unintelligibility is understood as the absence of information, as invalidation of the message, it is also the end of ideology, politics, religion, and ethics, none of which can operate without language.”

Epilogue: Code, Interpretation, Avant-Garde  The author recaps specific areas of this book in this section.

I conclude my comments on this book with these questions:

  1. When we use digital media to communicate, are we trying to have conversation? Or, are we just passing on information with no regard to deeper meaning?
  2. When we don’t offer our own opinions on material that we share, post, and forward, are we degrading our authentic voice to the open empty mouth puppet of a ventriloquist?

Join in the conversation now (click on the grey comment box for access)

Glyph Project insights coming August 19: Enlightening discussions on symbolism in our western culture.  Information   Take Survey Now

Schedule of invited writers begin this September.

 Always IN ART – msh

Decoder for Digital Art and its meaning (Post 2)

Book Review: Digital Art and Meaning by Roberto Simanowski

Published 2011 by University of Minnesota Press

This is the second post of three. Chapters 1, 2, and 3 are covered.

Isn’t digital literature any writing created on a computer for electronic distribution?

The Electronic Literature Organization, founded in 1999, defines electronic literature as “works with important literary aspects that take advantage of the capabilities and contexts provided by the stand alone or networked computer.”  Simanowski delves into the deep question, “Is digital literature still literature when it is manipulated so that it lacks readability and meaning?”

Chapter 1 Digital Literature

Defining digital literature – “The word digital, in the term digital art, relates to the medium of its production and not the semiotics of its materials,” states Simanowski. He offers three reasons for the rarity of hermeneutic endeavors (science of interpretation) from Jan van Looy and Jan Baetens book Close Reading New Media: Analyzing Electronic Media (2003):1) The basic conviction that critical attention does not matter; 2) The idea that digital media is created on the margins of the media that remains basically still a number cruncher; and, 3) The thought that this media has not produced enough interesting work to warrant such a tackling of the works.  For the purpose of his analysis, Simanowski brings three characteristics to the digital discussion: interactivity, intermediality, and performance.

Crossing genre boundaries – Simanowski references N. Katherine Hayles 2008 book Electronic Literature: New Horizons for the Literary with the quote, “demarcation between digital art and electronic literature is shifty at best, often more a matter of the critical traditions from which the works are discussed than anything intrinsic to the works themselves,”  Simanowski discusses the importance of words versus visual effects, including the meaning behind text movement, text emphasis, and hyperlink.

Playing with text – This section highlights a variety of methods used by creators. “The Mouse’s Tale” , printed as the shape of a tail in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, an 1865 novel by Lewis Carroll, is an example of concrete poetry. Digital media text has the option to actually wiggle, shape change, disappear and reappear, or hyperlink you through the Looking Glass. (Example: Still Standing (2005)  – Bruno Nadeau   Screen (2004) – Noah Wardrip-Fruin )

Outsourcing authorship – This section feels quite sci-fi. The author discusses the automatic writers of the 1920 Dadaist and Surrealist along with transgenic poetry experiments that synthesize DNA. Be ready for terms like holopoetry and biopoetry, as the author raises questions of ownership and authorship.  (Example:  Genesis (1999) – Eduardo Kac  ) Do you remember the movie War Games?

Chapter 2 Kinetic Concrete Poetry

Concrete Poetry in Print – Relationships between traditions of ancient and medieval times with contemporary forms brings referential foundations to newer works discussed in this section. The reader is exposed to methods used by monks and those used by William Blake in his Illuminated Books, of the 1800’s.  Simanowski describes Blake’s books as a “fusion of the visual and literary into a form intended to cleanse the relationship of the senses to the imagination.”  Further, the author gives examples of styles that accrue additional meanings by their presentation, such as labyrinth poems and figurative poems. (Example David Small – Illuminated Manuscript (2002)  )

Concrete Poetry in Digital Media – Simanowski remarks on the two basic elements of Concrete Poetry, linguistic and graphic, and how digital media has added two additional expressions: time and interaction. The author explores multiple examples in this chapter. You will want to search the web to experience a few. Have you some examples to share?

Neo Baroque and Generation Flash – Simonawski states, “There is a danger that the sensual pleasure is not combined with the pleasure of reflection…The focus on form reminds us of the hypertrophy of artistic means and the atrophy of content in the baroque and mannerism, which are marked by exploiting effects, audience amazement, and emphasis on entertainment.” Generation Flash is one of the new media artists’ tools, and the author proclaims “the software artist overcomes the second hand art of the media artist and produces from scratch.”  There is discussion on this form as the highest form of commercialism. The author drills down into the philosophical elements of time periods, which is a trip I found worth taking.  (Example   Scott Snibbe – Deep Walls  )

Technical Effects and Deeper Meaning – Overall this section provides discussion on the shift of concrete poetry with its focus on direct meaning, to visual effects that stimulate the senses where the text may have no “readable” meaning. The meaning is strictly realized by the participant, who finds meaning through personal life experience stimulated by eye and mind working in concert during the interaction. The examples provided, include opportunities for additional levels of philosophical understanding resulting from the outcome of selections made by the interactor. Here are some examples from me: Two people witness a sunrise. One says “What a beautiful sunrise” and the other states, “What a beautiful start to the rest of my life.” One comment is static, and the other is expansive.  If the capital letter “I” is created in 3-D and it spins horizontally, did the creator mean for you to interpret it any particular way? One might say it means “I’m confused”, and another might say “it’s in joyful dance.” What varying interpretations of the same visual can you share? 

Chapter 3 Text Machines

Computer Generated Text – An author writes from one perspective and the reader understands from another. In digital media, both of these perspectives, are preceded by and subject to allowances created by the programmer. Text generating machines use code to remix programmed sentences and words, that result in  nonsensical stories and sentence structures. Is computer generated text literature, or pure entertainment?  ( Example:   Makebelieve (2002) – Hugo Liu and Push Singh  )

Meaning of Chance –  In a 1982 essay, Steven Knapp and Walter Benn Michaels state, “It isn’t poetry because it isn’t language,” and, converting language into “accidental likeness of language,” dissolves the authors original intent. Katherine Hayles, presenting at the  2007 Digital Literature Conference, asked, “What are we doing when we exercise our human ingenuity to come up with meaningful interpretations of poetic lines generated by a machine for which meaning has no meaning?”  Simanowski provides alternative perspectives from scholars in the digital field to address the roles of the programmer and author, and, the reader and interactor. Is it literature or theater of absurd realities? (Example: Façade (2005) – Michael Mateus and Andrew Stern)

Understanding Nonsense – I think reading nonsense is nonsense, but somehow this author has made reading about the theory of reading nonsense sensible. He states, “Reading computer-generated text, we are normally aware of the fact that it is not exclusively concerned with literature but also concerned with engineering,” and “The text is the means to evaluate the program.” Great – it comforts me to know that most digital stuff I witnessed in art museums really  was not meant to be “art”, as I know it. The author references several parables including the biblical story of the Tower of Babel.  Let me provide a “living” example that needs no programmer: Think of the babble of background noise endured while sitting in public spaces, such as restaurants. Often, a multitude of individual voices I have no control over, rise to seek dominance over each other in an attempt to communicate personal discussions to someone sitting 2’ away. This results in the integration of cross party sentences that create a distorted nonsensical pluralist story constructed by these unaware collaborators. And, at this point my friends, I reach for ear plugs. Please, share a “living” example of yours. 

Readers and Writers – After Simanowski determines the author is not dead, he turns to the death of the reader and asserts that you cannot read nonsense. He claims that if text from a machine makes sense to you, then you are reading the machine code from the programmer, not language from a machine. He compares readers of digital media to “time travelers” in the world of text. I think they are in a world where the author (sometimes programmer) and the reader/author often collaborate on line, for better or for worse.  These folks don’t have the luxury of “dating sites”, where they might have some knowledge of each other’s hopes and dreams. I suspect the voices in these publicly accessed literary projects take on transitioning forms, as participants fight for dominance and “the most recent (not the last) comment.” More than one person has told me they feel such projects (and other social media formats) encourage self-centrist pursuits under the guise of “inclusiveness” social awareness. What do you think?

Join the conversation now – click in the grey comment box.

The final 3 chapters are coming August 12: Interactive Installations, Mapping Art, and Real-Time Web Sculpture

Always IN ART – msh

Decoder for digital art and its meaning

Is digital art, fine art? Who is the true creator of a digital work?

Book Review: Digital Art and Meaning by Roberto Simanowski

Published 2011 by University of Minnesota Press

Have you found digital art as boring as I have? The impulse to yawn when viewing digital works drove me to pick up this book. Although I had no deep understanding of this art, I concluded that the artists must not be stretching this field to its greatest potential. I found the works awkward, especially when asked to interact with them. Their Alfred Hitchcock endings and endless loops to nowhere drove me crazy. So, not willing to be crazy for the life of this art form, I decided to learn more about it.

Understanding most things is an evolutionary journey I have to force myself to invest time in. Like the plethora of traditional visual art forms and their hybrids, digital arts, and other transitory contemporary art forms, will have growing pains – and me, Miss Curiosity, along with them.  The world is the canvas folks.  My hope is that at some point, like the joy I get when leaving a great musical humming a tune, this art form gives me something satisfying and memorable. Of course that means I must choose to participate – shake up my “known” existence.

Due to the abundant number of examples and theoretical discussions the author uses to decode digital art in this relatively short book (290 pages including 60 pages of notes, indexes, and bibliographies), I will present my comments in 4 posts (this being the first of four). Each consecutive post is scheduled for distribution every Monday morning.

I begin my discussion by sharing that the book seems to contain a reasonable ratio of female to male scholars and artists, although I have no statistical data on the actual numbers in this field of study. Growing up watching the importance of women’s issues rise and fall repeatedly, I scan art publications to see if women are playing increasingly important roles in the discourse. According to the 2010 U.S. consensus women slightly outnumber men and just talking with people you might figure there are more professional women artists than men. Do you have statistics on gender ratios in the digital art field or studies you can share?

Further, understanding the intent of unfamiliar terms and words used by this author kept me busy on my smartphone, which offered me quick access to their meanings. This book may be a “hurdle-filled” read if you do not have some understanding of philosophy. For me, this sort of investigative reading is invigorating. What about you?

If you choose to read this book, I feel the Preface and Introduction are important as they reveal the author’s perspective and forewarn you of expected bias, allowing you to better adjust your interpretations of content as the book unfolds.

The Preface, subtitled Against the Embrace, is purposely juxtaposed to books written to promote accepting digital media for media sake and physical experience.  Simanowski gives the reader a brief review of early digital theory and writings that focus only on code and interactor experience. He introduces the reader to opposing critical perspectives, and there are many, including Susan Sontag’s 1964 essay “Against Interpretation”, with her famous quote “Interpretation is the revenge of intellect upon art.” Ultimately, Simanowski fully rejects the idea that digital works cannot and/or should not be analyzed like other visual, literary, or performance arts stating “This book is driven by the belief that the first purpose that digital work serves is to produce an act of creative expression; it is not a mere product of technology or chance.” I agree, do you?

Simanowski also provides some historic background on digital art, starting in the 1970’s, when a movement emerged in which these artists turned over control for love of process.  He deals only with digital art in this book, so I will now take a moment to interject some information on art preceding the digital movement that paved the way for releasing controls on artistic outcomes.

Historically, and well before personal computers, “letting go” was demonstrated by artists in “happenings”, “collaborations”, and “collectives”; responding participants used a variety of artistic disciplines to create works that most often did not meet the originators initial projected outcome – demonstrating the originator’s fearless acceptance of unintended consequences.  As an active contemporary artist, I know these movements and attitudes remain spirited and lively today. However, I do feel that the intent today is more for mass spectacle / mass appeal than those earlier years of moral or social purpose. Perhaps I’m misguided, so what can you add?

From my perspective these early performances and installation works outside the elite institutions of “high art” between the 1940’s and 1970’s, were courageous steps that shook hierarchal social thinking ultimately leading to the uninhibited artistic freedoms we have today in the United States and other “free thinking” societies. Hear me clearly please – our freedoms came from multitudes of fearless characters that came before us – our history is critically important to understanding our today. Let’s give credit to whom credit is due.

In the Introduction “Close Reading”, Simanowski lays out his mission to bring the reader closer to a deeper understanding than the spontaneous interplay of the interactor and their reactions to codes. Going beyond the accomplishments and tricks that code performs, he helps readers develop the ability to analyze the aesthetics of the works he used as case studies. He doesn’t designate any work as “high art”, but does provide some great examples for you to access on the internet, which allow you to form your own relationship with this media. (Art examples: JCJ Junkman by Feingold  Text Rain by Utterback and Achituv Very Nervous System by Rokeby  Facade by Mateus and Stern )

Yes, I want to comment now.

Coming Monday, August 5 – Chapter 1 Digital Literature and Chapter 2 Kenetic Concrete Poetry. Does digital art begin with code conception? Is it only digital work when it requires digital media to reach its full potential and purpose?  What do you think?

Always IN ART,…MSH