new media

The Ephemerality of Digital Media

In prophesying the future of digital media, many have questioned — without finding an answer — its ability to maintain the promise of permanent storage vowed since the early days of television.

Through its storage (memory) power, digital media was once considered the solution, if not the antithesis, to volatile media like television. It was to make things perennial and available at any moment. It was also to overcome the drawbacks of degradation and unreliability connected to analog formats. However, it has been demonstrated that the digital is cause of numerous archival problems of its own — memory being the most troublesome one.

The Enduring Ephemeral or the Future Is a Memory” by Wendy Hui Kyong Chun is a centerpiece in the field of new media criticism. Kyong Chun argues that “the slipperiness of digital media” is mainly caused by two components: the speed of the digital evolution (and digital technologies themselves), and the concept of digital memory which “blurs the boundary between machine and human”(as insinuated by Von Neumann in 1958).¹

The injection of digital media into our lives has shifted the way we experience events and access information to such an extent that it originated a nonlinear temporal line that “races simultaneously towards the future and the past”¹.

Engaging with the present is becoming so difficult already for folks at my age (early 20s) that it worries me to imagine how the younger generations will be able to cope with it. Traditional scholarship, as writer and scholar McKenzie Wark suggested, has become incompatible with the types of images and events, produced and distributed at lightninglike speed by the internet, that interrupt the homogeneous formal time of learning.²

Digital media has always had an hard time engaging with the present because of its instinctive desire to “program the future”¹ rather than the present. A large majority of engineers and scientists alike are currently creating for future generations, trying to shape the next rather than integrating with the present. And they have been doing this for decades— see Vannevar Bush’s Memex machine theorised in 1945 for example.

“Digital media is not always there. We suffer daily frustrations with digital sources that just disappear. Digital media is degenerative, forgetful, erasable. This degeneration makes it both possible and impossible for it to imitate analog media.” (Wendy Hui Kyong Chun)¹

The fight against ephemerality brought us to devising machines with a memory which is, at least, more permanent the the human’s one. If we exclude early forms of regenerative memory, such as the mercury delay line or the Williams tube, and today’s storage technologies like RAM, and flash memory, all that is left is the internet — the professedly enduring machine.

Yet, even a seemingly perpetual technology such as the internet won’t, most probably, last forever. Projects such as The Wayback Machine and the Interplanetary File System are currently acting as Internet backups archives and eliminating the need for websites to have a central origin server.

Internet is data stored in real-life servers somewhere, some of which can hold terabytes of information. Servers are hardware machines, and like any hardware technology, they deteriorate.

Even if the web winds up in a new, better of digital archive, plenty of problems still remain. Today’s web isn’t just a collection of static HTML files; it’s dynamic apps like Facebook, Twitter, and Slack. The operating systems and hardware of the future might not be able to read or run any of those. The same holds true for videos, photos, maybe even text. (Klint Finley, 2016)³

But even if a way to solve this issues could be found, after an insane amount of work, why even bothering? Should data really last forever?


Image Source: http://www.spikesnell.com/index.php?m=10&y=11&d=13&entry=entry111013-225355

References:

  1. Chun, W. (2008). The Enduring Ephemeral, or the Future Is a Memory. Critical Inquiry, 35(1), pp.148–171.
  2. McKenzie Wark (2006) “The Weird Global Media Event and the Tactical Intellectual [Version 3.0],” in New Media, Old Media: A History and Theory Reader, pp. 265–76.
  3. Finley, K. (2018). The Inventors of the Internet Are Trying to Build a Truly Permanent Web. [online] WIRED. Available at: https://www.wired.com/2016/06/inventors-internet-trying-build-truly-permanent-web/.

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

http://francescoimola.com

A brief look into Form Art

Alexei Shulgin’s Form Art (1997)

Once web art at its peak, Form Art now seems like a forgotten achievement in the infinite world of new media.

Yet, the innovative thinking that came along with the short development of Form Art as part of the net.art “movement” has inspired a plethora of contemporary artists.

Alexei Shulgin was one of the prominent members of the movement. He “created” Form Art, but also collaborated with many net artists such as Olia Liliana, Natalie Bookchin, Heath Bunting, and Vuk Cosic in projects which marked a turning point for new media art in the 90s.

In his perfomance Cyberknowledge for Real People (1997), he handed out printed collections of critical texts, previously distributed only online, to shoppers in Vienna. This showed that net art was not medium specific at all, which until then was the predominant theory; it did not have to be experienced online.¹

Shulgin has also organised several software arts festivals, spent time in Moscow collaborating with the creative arts collective Electroboutique, and gained a reputation with his “386DX” performances.

Form Art was commisioned to Shulgin during his residency at C3 in Budapest in 1997. He affirms to have started developing what became his most popular project at that time out of a simple need to experiment with the formal interface of internet technology and reshape it something different.

“I had those buttons, test areas, checkboxes in my mind for a while. The initial idea was to use them not as they were supposed to be used — as input interfaces — but to focus on their shapes, their position on a page, and to try to animate them.” (Alexei Shulgin)

Rhizome describes Form Art as “an interactive, formalist art site navigated aimlessly by clicking through blank boxes and links”².

The power of Form Art comes from its “misuse” of the browser aesthetic and HTML conventions imposed to users interacting with the web. Unknown behaviours, glitchy checkboxes, and patterns of textboxes are characteristic of Form Art.

By playing with combinations of these “forms”, Shulgin manages to create an abstract work of contemporary art which updates itself over time, in tandem with software’s constant evolution. In fact, the work’s appearance relies largely on whichever operating system [and browser] the viewer is using to access it.²

My extremely minimalistic attempt at Form Art

Giving And Taking, Francesco Imola, 2018

Giving and Taking is a short project I realised in p5js (a JavaScript library for creative purposes). I took inspiration from Michael Samyn’s “1001 checkboxes”, an artwork which won the Form Art competition organised by C3 (Hungary’s Center for Culture & Communication Foundation) in 1997.

Not much needs to be explained about its concept and operation. “Giving and Taking” is an endless loop between discomfort and relief.

This project can be visited here (via GitHub).

This is a snippet of the Javascript sketch which makes the artwork run:

let checkbox = [];
let centerwidth = innerWidth / 2;
let centerheight = innerHeight / 2;
let fr = 120;
let animY0 = 0;
let animY1 = innerHeight;
let isOn = false;

function setup() {
noCanvas();
frameRate(fr);
Checkboxes();
}

function Checkboxes() {
for (var i = 0; i <= 1 ; i++) {
checkbox[i] = createCheckbox();
}
}

function draw() {
let velocity = 2;
let speed0 = velocity;
let speed1 = velocity;

checkbox[0].position (centerwidth - 20, animY0);
checkbox[1].position (centerwidth + 20, animY1);

animY0 += speed0;
animY1 -= speed1;

if (animY0 > innerHeight) {
animY0 = 0;
}

if (animY1 < 0) {
animY1 = innerHeight;
}

if (animY0 == animY1) {
isOn = Check();
}
}

function Check() {
if (isOn) {
Uncheck();
}
else {
checkbox[0].checked(true);
checkbox[1].checked(true);
return true;
}
}

function Uncheck() {
checkbox[0].checked(false);
checkbox[1].checked(false);
return false;
}

You may encounter some issues — which I have not yet figured out — if trying to resize the browser window after loading the page. Try resizing the window first and then reloading the site.


References:

  1. Bosma, J. (2017). A Net Artist Named Google. [online] Rhizome. Available at: http://rhizome.org/editorial/2017/jan/12/a-net-artist-named-google-1/.
  2. Rhizome. (n.d.). Form Art. [online] Available at: http://rhizome.org/art/artbase/artwork/form-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

Designing forms for today’s society

144 Trapèzes (144 Trapeziums) —Vera Molnar (1974)— computer graphic, open series, 16 variations

Form and information are concepts so strictly interconnected to each other that one would be non-existent, or rather impossible to understand, without the other. Living in a world that relies on processing information means that humans are both the makers and the end-users of the mass of information they associate to. Yet, to make use of such data we depend on form, I.e the way information is presented.

“When we leave work, we do not leave information society. In our everyday life, we use search engines, we retrieve data from databases, and we rely on personal information appliances and personal information managers.” (L. Manovich, Introduction to Info-Aesthetics, 2008)

To an attentive enquiry, the word “information” contains the word “form” inside it […]. In reality it is the other way around: in order to be useful to us, information always has to be wrapped up in some external form.¹

Art, sitting at the earth of contemporary culture, isn’t excluded from such business of information processing. Cybernetic art, a branch “that builds upon the legacy of Cybernetics”², is particularly involved in the process of giving form to information.

Concepts have been developed by theorists such as Max Bense and Abraham Moles which speculate on a body of rules aimed at generating non-redundant artworks which focus on information processing. The “avoidance of transgression” and the “elimination of the avoidable” are, Bense affirms, necessary practices to achieve the ultimate form of information aesthetics.

However, redundancy is “inevitable” to the creation any artwork, and it may actually help the beholder approach the work with some interest. Elaborating on such notions, Moles argues that the observer’s previous knowledge is just as fundamental to the understanding of a work.

A. Michael Noll — Gaussian-Quadratic (1963)

The concept of information should be understood as content measurable in the transmission and storage of messages. All information on whose transmission communication is based, is built up by means of “signs”. (C. Giannetti, Cybernetic Aesthetics and Communication)

Contemporary design was substantially influenced by the notions of information aesthetic introduced and developed during the 50s and 60s. Designers started to build focusing on the human perception — especially the visual perception — of their work, which became more communicative. It is this work, which eventually gave rise to computer art and many other branches of new media art in the years to follow.


References:

  1. L. Manovich (2008). Introduction to Info-Aesthetics. [Online]. Available at http://manovich.net/index.php/projects/introduction-to-info-aesthetics
  2. Wikipedia. Cybernetic Art [Online] Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cybernetic_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

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