Bo Kampmann Walther: Questioning Digital Aesthetics

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Fluxus Movement?

So, what does Luhmann's interferential aesthetic mean in light of art in the age of digital reproduction? - Is there a digital aesthetic? - Or is there not? Without further ado, one can state that Luhmann's perspective seems to answer well to the praxis of digital artforms. Here the raison d'être of art is to put elements and viewpoints within the world at stake and at stage - to open up the level between the artist's form-decision and the art-spectator's fluctuating and unpredictable form-realisation. This new relation between artist, work of art, and public sphere is by far an unreflected aftermath of multiple social constructivist theses about a certain artworld, in which art as form, praxis, and institution is solely produced via the naming procedure in itself (today, in the act of naming, I turn my dog into a piece of art; tomorrow I shall make the whole world a work of art, etc. etc.). Even though we may acknowledge the turn in the philosophy of art towards a polycentric system in which many different social codes are manifested, we must also maintain that the artist can be depicted as a unique 'point' in the ecology of art-structure from where the initial (and hence original) form-condition and -decision are extracted. To put it harshly: art is freed from the vague democratisation of participatory culture where anybody is an artist in his or hers own right. Thus we have an 'artist of the first degree' who happens to press the button right before the work of art takes on its infinite journey towards change in character, form, and originality. But, however, all that which we used to call interpretation now reach into materialised expression; a fact that, negatively speaking, also means that the art-market is overflowed by products that are 'merely' spiralling reproductions of the original content. Mona Lisa with a beard and sunglasses may be performance art on Louisiana, but it is a crime on Louvre.

Let's step back to the bizarre thesis: We can answer by negatively affirming that there is such a thing as a digital, aesthetic viewpoint, namely the viewpoint that can be reflected in the initial form-decision made by the multimedia artist. This viewpoint is closely tied to the fragile centre of departure and growth, which is the tiny 'spot' right before hell breaks loose and everything becomes - art. As a way of looking at the world, art is still conditioned, though, because it is a formalised manifestation of social and epistemological codes, which together make up our complex reality as an unforeseeable riverbed of (sub-) systems. But the rationale of art is no longer privileged, because it is also a historical product of man's self-reflection, that is, a product of deciding 'form through form'. And so we seem to employ a double view: digital aesthetics foregrounds with the advent of artistic, initial form-decision. Following upon this affirmation, we can reflect the conditions of art production independently from the actually existing works of art. And if this is so, we also have a strong case for a philosophy that deals with the transcendental possibilities of art. This is a temporal argument: first there is the artist; then there is the spectator - which is, if I may say so, fifty percent Kant. But we can also state the opposite, namely that the work of art is the result of a contract made between the viewing operations of, respectively, the artist and the spectator - which seems to be half a Luhmann.

Interactive multimedia art does indeed sets new standards as regard considerations of form, fabric, and interpretation. It seems as if our traditional idea of the work of art as a more or less fixed temporal and spatial entity interferes with the floating structure of the cyber-artwork. When does a piece of art or a multimedia installation seize to be that particular work or installation, and instead becomes an altogether different one? Digital art moves in areas of deliberate hybrid constellations wherein specific artistic knowledge and instruments of meaning reveal innovative, generic de-placements and infinite input-output-architectures. We witness a cascade of conceptual dissimulations: from work of art to art-event, from reproduction to simulation, from mimesis to virtuality, from interpretation to interactivity, from image to interface, and from system to rhizome (Deleuze and Guattari, 1980). All this is, assumingly, also part of a digital realisation of the media contextualism of Avant-Pop (Walther, 2000 c).

The concept of generative art surfaces here. The question is how the promotion of new ways of expression can be supplied with the computer's automated processes. Part of the hype surrounding this endeavour gathers around the notion of variability (Weibel 1996). Normally it is used of complex systems that change behaviour and dynamic state due to pre-programmed stimuli as well as to exterior (variable) perturbations ('noise'). The future within digital art - on the Net, in the museums, and in the art galleries - is complex: the work of art will not only be capable of altering its own, autonomous parameters; it will further react 'intelligent' due to context-dependent adjustments. (3) And hence the sharp division between autonomy and heteronomy, which has been a central element in art thinking, becomes almost impossible to uphold. Rather than clinging to the a priori shape and structure of the work, we must operate with sequences of events whose internal relations cannot be rooted in a single sense or a single pattern of significance (compare Elsaesser, 1998). The tough challenge, especially to art-historians, is probably to prophesise if we will ever come to see the aposterioric qualities of digital art-events as 'a priori' essentials - or whether we will be blocked by our traditional, transcendental prejudices.

Digitally rendered art strongly challenges time, space, and place, not least because it seems to abolish classical time-processes and hereby emancipates from the affinity to materiality and spatiality. The German film scientist Edgar Reitz phrases the positive aspects of new digital narratives and images, since they both uniquely parallel the non-linear dynamics of human consciousness and the biological body. Even more feverish, Reitz views digital media as a case for Henri Bergson's qualitative time - durée (Reitz, 1995). In this culturally optimistic agenda, the computer becomes a strange mixture of informational codebreaker and communication tool. The tendency one can trace, is an ideologisation of digitality that leads to new visions of the creation of meaning, bodily presence and 'true' conscience; the idea of the computer as a hardware-box with appropriate software is tossed aside.

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(3)Compare the concept of cybertext as formulated by Espen Aarseth: "A cybertext is a machine for the production of a variety of expression". It "focuses on the mechanical organisation of the text, by positing the intricacies of the literary exchange" (Aarseth, 1997, 1, 18). Further: Cameron, 1998. A fine, contemporary example of an art-form that disputes the extent of interactivity as well as the place of the interface is Fibre Wave II, a work by the Japanese artist Mahato Sei Watanabe that was exhibited at Inter Communication Centre in Opera City Tower, Tokyo 1999. The centre of the installation was a computer that kept registering force and direction of the wind in cities such as Paris, Buffalo, and Moscow and on Jupiter, and Mars. Not only were the wind-conditions depicted on large displays in the installation's venue depending on what locality the audience chose to zero in on at the computer screen. The computer also transmitted the wind-information onto two huge jet engines placed on each separate wall in the exhibition room. From here a Mars-storm or a Moscow-breeze were dispatched to a field of three metre high transparent glass-fibre sticks that led like fluorescence whenever they moved. The audience would stroll around in a field of glass-fibres that gently waved beneath the world-wind (Qvortrup, 2000). See also Lunenfeld, 1997 and Mitchell, 1995.