Digital Art

The genealogy of computer as an expressive medium

Readings on new media

The new digital medium of the 21th century, like the medium of film 100 years earlier, is so myriad in its forms that only trying to trace its history would generate confusion.

The appearance of the New Media Reader was a landmark in the history of a somewhat ghettoised field which is now flourishing into the mainstream domain. For the first time, a single reader managed to trace the path that led to the development of the cyberspace as we know it today.

The book also reflects on several topics associated with the difficult history of new media. One being the issue of cultural institutions privileging traditional art over new media art. “It is their responsibility to select what makes it into our cultural memory and what is left behind. They should start treating those who have expressed fundamental ideas of human-computer interaction as much as major artists as the people who revolutionised, for example, art in the Nineteenth century.”¹

If we define the domain of new media as the study of new cultural objects, we should also seek to examine what are these new cultural objects. In The Language of New Media (Cambridge, Mass. — The MIT Press, 2001), Lev Manovich describes these objects as “all the objects that are distributed and exhibited solely using digital technology (Websites, computer games, Virtual Reality, etc.). TV programs, movies, magazines, and books do not fall into this category because they make use of computer technology for production but not for actual distribution. Yet this definition needs to be revised every few years, because as technology progresses more and more objects will start relying on new media for distribution.”²

Will we ever se a complete transition of all old-media into interactive digital data?

To some extent, this process has been happening for years without us being able to stop it and analyse it in detail. Take, for example, representational images. These used to be something one would only stare at. If we scroll though Flickr today, we can do a lot more than just looking at pictures. They can be downloaded in different formats, liked, shared, commented, emailed, screen-grabbed, you get the idea.

“While visually an image still appears as a single continuous field, in fact it is broken into a number of regions with hyperlinks connected to these regions.”³

The New Media Reader also provides its opinion on new media thought of as computerisation of what was possible to be executed by human draftsmen years ago. Algorithms, in a way, could be just speeding up what a person could have done, although much more slowly. But in some cases, speeding up algorithms also impacts on the qualitative characteristics of the final product. Such as in the case of computer games. These are constituted by complex interactions between AI, visual, and sound algorithms – a collaboration that would never be possible in real-time if a human were to execute those steps.

3D Open-world games such as Forza Horizon (Playground Games) marked a milestone for computer videogames and the development of large-scale interactive algorithms.

Historical parallelism is proven by the New Media Reader by confronting key texts by modern artists and computer scientists articulating similar ideas about technological development. Two readings in particular can give us a sense of what was seen as the coming “new medium” in the decade following the end of the two world wars. The story of Argentine writer and poet Jorge Luis Borges (1941) and the article by American engineer and science administrator Vannevar Bush (1945) both develop the idea of a “massive branching structure as a better way to represent human experience”⁴

In Bush’ imagined Garden of Forking Paths this complex structure resembles a labyrinth that “folds back upon itself in infinite regression”⁵. For Bush, instead, the world is more like a challenging maze than an unsolvable labyrinth. Here the scientist’s responsibility is to lay down new trails to solve the enigma. However, the linear medium at the time of Bush and Borges had failed to capture the intricacy of human thoughts. Scientists and intellectuals were, therefore, driven to investigate and fantasise about informative structures, making up for a lack of an adequate map of knowledge.

Representation of Borges’ Garden of Forking Paths

The theories of humanists and engineers also described creativity as the only tactic to solve the world’s problems. On one side the humanist strand, while still engaging in decrypting our cultural confusion, tended to dramatise such problems. On the other, engineers were “putting their faith in the invention of the proper instruments”⁶.

The stories and essays of both storytellers and humanists later became blueprints for actual systems that employed technology to reconfigure our cultures. And it is when these two traditions come together and collaborate that we see the rise of new “emergent forms of human expression.”⁷


References:

1–4–5–6–7: Nick Montfort and Noah Wardrip-Fruin (2003). The New Media Reader [Paperback, Online] Available at www.newmediareader.com/

2–3: Lev Manovich (2001). The Language of New Media [Online, Hardcover, paperback] Available at https://mitpress.mit.edu/books/language-new-media


Francesco Imola is a London-based musician, weekend photographer, and current Sound Design student at the University of Greenwich.

w. http://francescoimola.com/

tw. https://twitter.com/francescoimola

When technology meets the artist.

Taking shape out of 1970s’ computer-generated visual art, “digital art” developed as a reaction to the technology advancement and the spread of the World Wide Web in the mid-90s. It has since become an established practice, often than not included under the umbrella term of New Media art.

[embed]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=awvQp1TdBqc[/embed]

Defining an art that is constantly evolving is a complex process. However, trying to exemplify it by presenting the reader with various manifestations of digital art may be helpful. Christiane Paul’s Digital Art (World of Art) is a successful attempt at surveying the multiple forms this artistic practice can assume. Paul investigates the boundary-crossing activities that played a major role in the production of digital art.

Christian Paul, Digital Art: World of Art, 2003/2008/2015

Dating back to the birth of the first ENIAC (Electronical Numerical Operator and Computer) in 1951, the line between engineering innovators and artists was yet to be defined.

Who are we to assume that, in fact, scientific discoveries are not driven by artistic minds, eager to explore their practice just as much as so-called artists do? Not to mention the algorithms that form the basis for all the software we use today. Those may as well have been developed firstly for artistic purposes.

For example, take a second to look at the Terravision project started out by Art+Com Studios in 1994. It is a “networked virtual representation of the earth based on satellite images, aerial shots, altitude data, and architectural data. It allows users to navigate seamlessly from overviews of the earth to extremely detailed objects and buildings.”¹ (Art+Com)

Does it look any familiar? Google Earth anyone?

“In simpler words, engineering is to art just like a pen is to a book. Had civil engineers and architects not been there, some of the greatest buildings in the world would not have been built. In a similar manner, if audio engineers had not mixed some of the greatest music albums of all time, those albums would not have sound so great.”² (Nermin Sa’d)

On this matter, digital art draws its inspiration from conceptual elements. Instructions, or algorithms, are seen as the foundation — and the limit themselves — to the creation of new artworks.

“A procedure of formal instructions would accomplish a result in a finite number of steps. […] Their fusion with audience participation and event as the smallest unit of a situation in many ways anticipated the interactive, event-based nature of some computer artworks.”³ (Christiane Paul)

John Cage was one of the earliest masters of revolutionising random access, often using the audience response as a “musical instrument”. Many of his sound and visual works were created partially though randomisation of elements in the composition — which were never twice the same.

[embed]https://vimeo.com/23057544[/embed]

The role of arts organisations associated with digital art was also fundamental to the expansion of the practice. Most of those, such as EAT (Experiments in Arts and Technology), besides organising colloquiums and gatherings for both engineers and artists, also developed an interest in promoting live performances. The focus of interactive projects in the 1970s and 80s ranged from making use of slow scan television and satellites to setting up real-time teleconferencing — collapsing the geographical boundaries of real space.

Some More Beginnings Exhibition at E.A.T. in 1968

Making the audience participant in the work has been a constant motif in the forming of many digital artworks. While some artists were involved into creating more object-oriented works, others explored the interactive aspects of process-oriented art. The artist became a mediator between the public and the digital medium.

Because of its characteristics, however, digital art poses quite a few challenges in its presentation, storing, and preservation. This has contributed to creating a gap between media artists and gallery institutions. Most museums don’t have the tools to maintain time-based and interactive digital artworks. Additionally, especially when we talk about Internet Art, this is presented on a freely available medium which anyone can have access to. The status of the museum as the only space where to experience the artwork is therefore lost.

Neverthless, the interest for new, more participatory, forms of art from museums worldwide is increasing. Galleries like Tate, MoMA, and SAAM, to name a few, are currently displaying and storing digital artworks on their own websites.

“What makes digital art unstable are the rapid changes and developments in hardware and software.”⁴ Initiatives aimed at preserving digital art are currently under development. In the meantime we can only hope for institutions to fight these limitations and for artist to keep developing their practice as technology advances.


References:

1: ART+COM Studios (1994). Terravision, 1994. [online] Available at https://artcom.de/project/terravision/

2: Nermin S. (2014). The Eternal Relationship between Art and Engineering. [online] Available at https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/20141207232402-65458978-the-eternal-relationship-between-art-and-engineering/

3–4: Paul C. (2015). Digital Arts (World of Art). [paperback] Available at https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/131831.Digital_Art


Francesco Imola is a London-based musician, weekend photographer, and current Sound Design student at the University of Greenwich.

w. http://francescoimola.com/

tw. https://twitter.com/francescoimola

Digital Addiction and Hyperconnectivity

Furtherfield’s “Are We All Addicts Now?” explores networked life

Finsbury Park-based gallery space and arts organisation Furtherfield is currently home to exhibition and research space Are We All Addicts Now? until 12 November 2017.

‘Stressing the physicality of digital life’¹, Are We All Addicts Now? uncovers the glooming appeal of online spaces and criticises the digital world for subconsciously influencing our lives through neuro-marketing and highly-addictive visual and auditory stimuli. Artworks on display are the result of extensive research on this subject by artist Katriona Beales and co-curator & contributor Fiona MacDonald. Their work is a direct reflection of their experience with technology and a research for the physicality of actions and networks within the both the digital and “natural” world.

[embed]https://vimeo.com/235888054[/embed]

As visitors walk into the gallery a video installation ‘displays a drum of hypnotically spinning images whose rotation is triggered by people’s movement’¹. While perhaps the least controversial, Entering The Machine Zone is be an highly addictive artwork. Its flat screen flashing hyper-saturated colours, the sound mimicking old instant messaging notifications, and its interactive component, all combine in an aesthetically and conceptually strong work.

Katriona Beales, Entering The Machine Zone (2017). Photo by Pau Ros.

A beaded curtain gives visitors access to a darkened room where a velvet sunken bed becomes meditation space for all senses. Here, through the curves of a glass sculpture an embedded screen displays moths in constant movement. By wearing headphones people can listen to what Beales describes as her most intimate work so far. She illustrates the audio part of Networked Bed to art magazine Studio International:

“There’s a whispered audio based on a recording I made at 3am one night as I scrolled through my Twitter timeline, reading a few words of each tweet. It’s like a concrete poem. It’s a snapshot of who I follow and their thoughts, anxieties and politics. Because it’s unlikely anyone follows exactly the same configuration of people as me, it’s also strangely intimate — a kind of algorithmic self-portrait.”

In the meanwhile, the other dark side of the gallery is lit by a table-fitted screen displaying a video made up of a series of digital-age-related short loops. Shifting the attention to the ceiling, visitors can appreciate scattering visualisations of eye-tracking data “harvested live” by a computer set alongside. From here people can access a selection of html artworks and pdf files. Eyes movement are tracked from this station and then processed to display the resulting points of focus on the computer screen to the projection on the ceiling.

Working Together (2017) is a mini animation showing the numbers of people who have liked, retweeted and commented a Donald Trump tweet over a timespan of 15 minutes. It is designed to make visitors reflect on the now accredited role of social media in gaining and retaining relevance.

On platforms such as Twitter, the higher the number of ‘nodes of connectedness”² that originate from a tweet, the stronger the “network power” of an entity. No matter how much support or disagreement a tweet can receive, every interaction with this contributes to building up the popularity of the person who tweeted it.

Katriona Beales, Working Together (2017)

An alternative approach to envisioning forms of “networked life” is taken by Fiona MacDonald with her sound work Mycorrhizal Meditation (available here). Curator, writer and artist as Feral Practice, she investigates the “beyond-human network” of fungi and plant tissue that lie under the soil.

The mycorrhizal network “acts both as a woodland’s food store and communication centre”³ foreshadowing now seemingly modern communication networks. The work was created combining the artist’s voice with contact and ambient microphone recordings of wooden soundscapes. It is meant to be listened to in Finsbury Park, but can accessed from anywhere.

People become addicted to substances or activities, but it’s impossible to become addicted to a medium. You can be no more addicted to the internet than you can to language or radio waves. (@vaughanbell, MindHacks, 2007)


References:

1. Furtherfield. (2017). Are We All Addicts Now? — Furtherfield. [online] Available at: http://www.furtherfield.org/events/are-we-all-addicts-now/.

2. Broome, H. (2017). Katriona Beales: ‘It’s not the internet that is malevolent, but the way behavioural psychology is employed to coerce compulsive use’. [online] Studio International. Available at: http://www.studiointernational.com/index.php/katriona-beales-interview-are-we-all-addicts-now .

3 Furtherfield. (2017). Mycorrhizal Meditation — Furtherfield. [online] Available at: http://www.furtherfield.org/mm/.


Francesco Imola is a London-based musician, multimedia artist, and current Sound Design student at the University of Greenwich.

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Ryoji Ikeda’s immersive installation Test Pattern [N°12] at The Store Studios

The Store X The Vinyl Factory-commissioned installation by Japanese A/V artist and composer Ryoji Ikeda opens in London today.

Bell Street based Lisson Gallery, in partnership with independent arts group The Vinyl Factory, presents a major off-site multi-sensory exhibition Everything At Once at The Store Studios, 180 The Strand. The show features new and historical works by contemporary artists including Ai Weiwei, Marina Abramović, Anish Kapoor, Susan Hiller and Rodney Graham. Presented alongside are three site-specific commissions by Ryoji Ikeda, Arthur Jafa and Jeremy Shaw.

Test Pattern [N°12] is perhaps the most immersive and captivating of the three. Latest iteration of Ryoji Ikeda’s ongoing project started in 2006, “test pattern is a system that converts any type of data (text, sounds, photos, and movies) into barcode patterns and binary patterns of 0s and 1s. Through its application, the project aims to examine the relationship between critical points of device performance and the threshold of human perception.” (the artist’s website)

[embed]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MPLhZOox_do[/embed]

The experience of walking barefoot into a pitch black room with flashing lights while blasted with razor-sharp beats is mind-melting. Flickering black and white, barcode-like, visuals convulse in darkness on a floor screen, in time with a soundtrack of pure-tone electronics and heavily minimalist rhythms. Moving at some hundreds of frames per second, such perfectly synchronous and ultra-fast imagery, create a fully immersive experience for every visitor.

Ikeda’s previous iteration of his project, test pattern [nº11], was exhibited earlier this year at Elevation 1049, The Vinyl Factory co-curated high-altitude festival taking place in the Swiss Alps.

test pattern [N°12] is open at the Store Studios, 180 The Strand, London, from 5th Oct — 10th December and is free to visit.


Francesco Imola is a London-based musician, weekend photographer, and current Sound Design student at the University of Greenwich.

w. http://francescoimola.com/

tw. https://twitter.com/francescoimola