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Article 93  14-03-01  Editors: Arthur and Marilouise Kroker

Digitality - approximate aesthetics

~Anna Munster~

     The digital camera allows a proximity to material, to skin, to
     the surface of paint that excels the eye's trained ability to
     sort and recognise.  Skin pores become alien matter folding in
     billows, blunt bags trimmed with iridescent grease, pinked
     mudflats.  Hair meets paint slabbed on like cold marge.
     Mathew Fuller [1].

Where and how to locate a digital aesthetic?  In a sense the
question, although unanswerable and reaching us from a recent but
already faded past (circa 1993), is no longer of any value for
theorists and practitioners of "new media" and "digital" arts.  As an
indication of both the lag and catch-up that culture, cultural
practice and theorisation of that practice play with each other, the
digital is itself located everywhere, if one is privileged enough to
take advantage of the franchised globalisation of computing
technologies.  During the early 1990s, when a range of relatively new
art forms such as CD-ROMs and terminal-based interactive installation
exploded into cultural life, the self-conscious announcement of a
genre of art work called "the digital" had some strategic, and
aesthetic substance to it.  But as Mitchell Whitelaw has argued, the
range of practices to come under the "umbrella" of "digital art" is
now so diverse and the digital as a category itself so mundane, that
the art is done a disservice by being grouped in such a way [2].

Despite the fact that the notion of digitality to promote, describe
or identify a still emerging aesthetic seems already jaded, I want to
argue that there is nevertheless something specific about digital
art.  This specificity is in part a result of the mode of producing,
consuming and participating with those machines that are the
condition of possibility for digital art practice.  These machines
are not reducible to a set of technical parameters nor can the
digital be considered solely in terms of the formal qualities and
conditions it imposes on its products or outcomes.  This is not then,
an argument from the medium, particularly if the medium is to be
considered as the technology that is used for the realisation of
digital artwork.  I want to argue, alongside writers such as
Whitelaw, that the content and ideas expressed through digital art
should be addressed over and above the technology that supports them.
 But at the same time I want to suggest that there is increasingly a
sense in which it is possible to aesthetically locate the digital.

This discussion of a digital aesthetics and of a variety of digital
art genres that constitute a diverging field is framed through my
exploration of proximity as a structuring concern in developing a
notion of a digital aesthetics. The grounds of debate shift away from
concerns such as virtuality, interactivity and dematerialisation
often cited as the preoccupations of digital art [3].   Relations of
proximity operate at a number of levels: the closeness digital media
continue to maintain and develop with other media such as cinema and
photography, the redistribution of spatial and temporal relations
into an experience of virtual nearness, and the kinship of the
immateriality of informatics with the material strata of organic and
inorganic bodies.

To set the scene for the relay of connections these proximities set
off between each other I want to look at Graham Harwood's Internet
artwork "Uncomfortable Proximity" [4].  It is precisely the sense of
the uncomfortable that this piece technically, politically,
conceptually and stylistically conveys that can act as a starting
point for traversing these various levels.  Harwood's site acts as a
mirror to the official website of the Tate gallery in London (and its
subsidiaries).  Navigating through the official site allows access to
his version of the site which, when activated from its hyperlink,
opens as a new window in whatever net browser used on top of or next
to the official site.  This is the first step in pursuing proximity
as an adjunct to the phenomenon of mirroring that is itself part of
Internet retrieval, search and navigation.  Mirroring sites is a ploy
commonly used to breach copyright, divert net traffic to more obscure
areas and to contravene the broadcasting of material, such as
pornography, likely to come under censorship regulations.  A mirrored
site may simply reproduce a particular site at another server
location or it may partially mirror the site in order to subvert,
hack or intervene into this site.  As part of the online and offline
collective "Mongrel", Harwood's mirroring fits within this hacking
tradition, such that the mirror no longer reflects or reproduces but
functions as an other version, recalling critically, hacking into and
redistributing its meanings across the network [5].

Perhaps what allows this strategy to remain startling and to produce
its uncomfortable affectivity is the proximity of Harwood's mirror,
sitting as it does on the same desktop as the public Internet face of
the Tate.  It is not the deployment of a hacking strategy per se that
allows the politics and aesthetics of this digital work to unfold
here; mimicry as ironic comment or subversion is a well-trodden path
within postmodern cultural practice.  "Uncomfortable Proximity"
operates by unleashing momentary flashes of astonishment, discomfort
and squeamishness, mobilising the capacities of digital technologies
themselves to forge extreme juxtapositions, unbearable proximities,
unspeakable intimacies.  The proximity Harwood's site offers to the
Tate disturbs the comfortable and bland proximities information
collection on the desktop or in the archive offers us.  The notion
that the terminal itself gathers up the world or provides a window
onto it is shattered as we begin to feel that terminals might instead
be nodes for siphoning, blocking and redistributing informational
spaces.  For Harwood the world is not reducible via terminal art or
identity to universal history, knowledge or aesthetic experience.
Information itself becomes a differential space for the collision of
different worlds.  The piece is then not just a comment, a subversion
or a dull parody but provides, as Mathew Fuller argues, an opening up
of the history and politics of the visual that the Tate has a hand in
constructing [6].  That is, of contributing to an exclusive,
class-based canon of British art history.  The public and authorised
space of the gallery and museum often finds its continuance through
the Internet, with just about every large institution using digital
media to reproduce or disseminate its "collection".  "Uncomfortable
Proximity" acts to break up the homogeneity of this space and to take
the museal on a diversion through its heterogeneous genesis [7].

The sensation the work produces for the viewer/user is not suspension
of belief and/or acquiesence to the phantasmagoric digital world but
disbelief, disconnection, discomfort.  This may on the surface of it
break the link between viewer/user and artist almost as if there is a
need to move back, away from the monitor and disengage from the
interactive process.  But it also produces a sensation of discomfort
that, in terms of proximate embodied experiences, gives us a ~sense~
of Harwood's own discomfort.  If interactive art or technologies are
thought only in terms of the technical level of interactivity that
occurs, that is, the degree to which the participant is
cybernetically incorporated into the system - the parameters of which
are preordained - then we lose the aesthetic moment as sensate
experience of that art.  An aesthetic interaction with digital art
may simultaneously require systemic disconnection.

Harwood takes digital snapshots of the Tate's British masters,
Turner, Gainsborough, Hogarth; snapshots designed not to disseminate
the perfect copy but to show up the dirty texture of low-resolution
imaging.  Using the techniques that make up the stock of digital
manipulation - cut, copy, paste - he creates roughly hewn portraits
carved from the masters, juxtaposed with images of his own body,
those of family and friends and of the skin of infected bodies and
the visceral, dredged-up landscape of the Thames river adjoining the
site of Tate Modern.  While so much digital imaging manipulation is
devoted to a construction of the seamless, Harwood points instead to
artifice and to the sense in which this can literally be productive
of links: links to the excluded, the minor, the disenfranchised and
those obliterated from public and institutional histories [8].  The
juxtaposition of canonical painting to embodied biographical images
that Harwood achieves in his portraits, for example in _Hogarth, My
Mum 1700 -2000_, is made possible by the artifice of digital imaging
techniques and the flatness of low-resolution digital imaging which
gives to texture an informatic surfacing.  This is particularly
noticeable in online terminal-based work where, as a result of the
necessity for compression, visuals lose information and gain noise
and where they also glow with the luminance of the computer monitor.
 These conditions, that constitute part of the materiality of the
digital work (that is, the material conditions for both the
production and reception of it), pass into the sensations experienced
by engaging with a work such as "Uncomfortable Proximity".  Not a
sense of disembodiment and connection to a society of mind but of
bodies pressing together, too close to each other for comfort:

     Eyes of muscle, water and jelly share the same surface tension
     those of dried-up and lacquered oil in a self-portrait by
     Hogarth.  Beeswaxed curls crust up into sheets of colour, a
     microcosmic gesture on canvas becomes enough to smother a head

Proximity allows Harwood to develop a digital aesthetic that locates
digital technology itself as more than a medium but less than an
enframing or determining cultural structure.  Developing the digital
through a proximity to images of organic and embodied life and
interweaving these with the materials of official and unofficial
histories (those, who like him, experienced the Tate as an
institution of the British class system), Harwood finds himself in
the midst of the compositional process.

Digital art certainly has no claims to an exclusive ~modus operandus~
when it comes to composition.  But it does seem to allow for
particular modes of composition that can create zones through which
the organic and machinic become approximate to each other.  Digital
artists often produce those sensational flashes of wonder, shock,
incredulity and squeamishness by laying out both corporeality and the
informatic across a plane of artificiality, where, particularly
within the context of the digital image, both function as
productions, inventions, chicanery.  Art's archives and collections
may lie in wait for the promise of restoration to the public that
digital media, viewed as a mechanism of reproduction and pure
translation, seem to offer.  But the rough, immediate and poor
quality of the approximate that they actually deliver can provide the
stuff of a different aesthetics, an aesthetics that connects to life
as a process of composing/compositing the self.  Harwood indicates
that the digital is not a technology that easily or seamlessly
facilitates this process but rather one that lays open the very
wounds and edges that are the interface to proximities.

The borders between the scabs and Turner fragments, the hair
follicles of his sister and the brush strokes of an oil, the polluted
mud of the river and the aura of the masterpiece, are scars.  They
mark Harwood's own memories of walking the Tate, seeing the art, but
feeling that he did not belong to its world.  But they also follow
the lines of the abrupt intimacies that the digital offers us,
bumping up next to the skin of others and recoiling from that
sensation.  Never quite connecting with "the other", always evading
the full sensorium of others and feeling one's way along the edges of
interfaces; gaining at the same time, perhaps the sense and textures
drawn in by the alterity which is the machine.

There are of course decompositions that the digital makes of other
media such as the photographic which we might be tempted to think
about in terms of lost materialities.  But surely we have moved into
a different cultural perception of the image than continually
counterposing the digital to the photographic analogue.  In this
scenario, digitality can never become proximate to materiality
aesthetically, kineasthetically or technically and always emerges
with a deficit.  But digital modes of image production are no less
kinaesthetic simply because they are negotiated through coded
terrain.  They do however constitute a deterritorialisation of the
hand; indeed as Deleuze suggests they envelop the hand completely
within their internal relations:

     Once again, these basic units or elementary visual forms [ie
     digital code] are indeed aesthetic and not mathematic, inasmuch
     as they have completely internalised the manual movement that
     produces them [10].

Harwood's rough tears at the borders of his images, the jamming of
incongruities to form class proximities experienced as bodily
memories of the "out-of-place", the slapdash movement of hand to
mouse to screen constitute one form of a digital kinaesthetics that
becomes ~productive~ of aesthetic experience.

Defining the practice via the medium without regard to its
differential proximities has landed digital art and in particular
high-tech digital artwork and artists in a rather paradoxical
political and cultural position.  On the one hand it has secured (for
a few) a place for such art within a more general rhetoric that
expounds a constantly upgradable notion of digitality as
"state-of-the-art"[11].  Roy Ascott, for example, has been at the
forefront of this position on digital art, arguing that the computer
is not simply a tool but an entirely new medium ushering in a new
visual language and producing new relations for making and receiving
the digitally produced artwork [12].  These kinds of pronouncements
of vanguardism have seen a range of none too critical writings accrue
to support the doctrine of a practice and culture that follows the
rhythm of the technology itself; always ahead of its actualisation,
always awaiting the future as a new version of itself.

On the other hand, the notion that art can be defined according to
the medium through which it is realised stands firmly within the
discourse of modernism.  As Greenberg argued in his essay, "Modernist
Painting", what was unique to a particular art coincided with what
was unique about the medium it deployed [13].  Indeed, according to
him modernism is above all a mode of calling attention to the
conditions and limitations of a medium in order to produce from these
something new, something positive out of the nature of the medium
itself.  The concentration on technology per se, whether it features
as part of the content, the development of a kind of digital style or
the emphasis on computational processes, thus draws so much of this
"cutting edge" digital artwork back within a modernist tradition.
During the late 1980s and early 1990s writers such as Frank Popper
and Cynthia Goodman promoted digital art as a new aesthetic based
upon the nature of the medium [14].  But this reads now a little like
an attempt to provide the digital with a genealogy that would
legitimate it by entrenching it within acceptable art history

Both Darren Tofts and Steven Holtzman have argued that digital art is
endemic to the computer [15].  But they both broaden the argument
from the medium and from a strictly modernist position to suggest
that digital art occurs after the event of the computer.  Tofts
argues that this event has an impact upon our notions of
spectatorship in general.  Rather than the much touted collapse of
the division between artwork and viewer, computer interactivity
particularly as it occurs via the computer terminal makes us aware of
the perceptual space that surrounds the terminal.  In other words,
the computer provides a non-immersive and artificial space for
exhibiting and interacting with digital art more akin to theatrical
and staged space than to the promise of total identification that
virtual reality makes.  This then is an argument about the computer
as apparatus rather than the computer as medium and offers us a more
expansive version of the ways in which there may be a specificity to
the aesthetics or experience of computer art.  From a different
angle, Holzman although reliant upon much modernist debate about the
essential characteristics of a medium to an art, still offers the
important point that digital technologies offer us a new language for
expression and that this language is part of the development of
digital media [16].  Tofts use of the term apparatus to refer to the
computer reminds us that it is more than just a technology and that
the digital is also indebted to its proximity to other media
histories such as those of the cinema.  Yet aesthetic, embodied
experience  remains an impoverished term within the range of his

My sense of the aesthetic possibilities produced by the event of the
digital computer comes from the way in which digitality provides a
set of lived circumstances in which our senses encroach upon us in a
different way.  This occurs via a particular kind of mediation that
gives rise to the production of a certain kind of artwork.  My
project to locate a digital aesthetics is not foremost about the
tradition that gives rise to digital art nor is it a speculation
about an art that will take us ever further into the future.  It is
about the contemporary moment.  It offers the digital not as a brave
new category or as an umbrella for all that exists by artists working
with digital technologies.  Instead it offers itself up as an
approximate aesthetics.  Living life under the sign of the digital is
about the emergence of a spatiality and duration in which relative
speeds and differential relations are foregrounded in embodied
experience.  It is these conditions that constitute the basis for an
approximate aesthetics of the digital.  Digital art then, is partly
dependant upon what it offers us specifically and uniquely as it
affects us through its "blocs of sensation" [17].  The "bloc" or zone
according to Deleuze and Guattari, designates a relational area of
sensibility, the indeterminate feeling of sensate participation in
the material world, organic or inorganic:

     Life alone creates such zones where living beings whirl around,
     and only art can reach them and penetrate them in its enterprise
     of co-creation.  This is because from the moment the material
     passes into sensation, as in a Rodin sculpture, art itself lives
     on in these zones of indetermination.  They are blocs [18].

This of course is to suggest that the notion of the aesthetic needs
to be rethought as an area not so much dependant upon style, media or
the formal qualities of an art but upon the arena of sensation
itself.  Following this rethinking of art's zone of operation as the
affect, the aesthetic is concerned with a range of corporeal
processes.  It is about a plane of experience which allows for the
intersection of the force a sense impression exerts upon the body to
a mediated reflection upon this and of course the continual movements
between these.  The aesthetic as aesthesia would not distinguish
between experience and contemplation of that experience as two
operations springing from different faculties.  Instead it attends to
the way that sensation could be productive of both of these across an
expansive, experiential plane.  These movements, Deleuze and Guattari
argue, are almost impossible to detect; molecular, on the verge of
imperceptibility, they hit us at lightening speeds.  It is perhaps
this movement, so difficult to pin down, that we experience almost as
after-taste when engaging with art, and as the rendering of these
forces into something concrete through the materiality of a medium
when producing art [19].

But if the aesthetic is specifically concerned in this way with the
becoming of sensation then it must also take into account the
conditions under which that corporeal becoming occurs.  I am not
suggesting that digitally mediated experience can lay a privileged
claim to these marginal movements of perception and sensation.
Rather I would suggest that a preoccupation with movements between
different perceptual states, accelerated and accentuated through
engagements with machinic perception, does give the digital certain
currency in relation to the mutation of affect and the production of
new affects.  It is in exploring a relation to the possibilities of
machinic perception - the different speeds of engagement that it
demands from the interactant and also the artist, its instantaneity
coupled with the interminable frustrations, stoppages (the computer
crash) and waiting periods - that we can begin to see the aesthesia
of the digital operate.  We need here to think of speed not as an
absolute tool of measurement, when for example the speed of light is
invoked in an absolutist manner or the processing speed of the
computer becomes a measure for machine/corporeal experience.  Speed
is an intensive, differential, corporeal quality.  The relations of
movement that make up the speed of a particular body also allow it to
be affected by and affect other bodies.  It is possible to change
these qualitative relations of speed by entering into affective
relations with other bodies and creating new affective compounds

Digital proximities are foremost about new relations to movement,
although these necessarily lead us to think through questions of
spatiality particularly as these are fleshed out through geopoltical
changes.  Perhaps the preoccupation with disembodiment or
dematerialisation within some digital art results from riding
roughshod over the differential speeds at which both digital
technologies and human corporealities move.  As Katherine Hayles has
argued, the materiality of embodiment has a particular way of
receiving and generating meaning that gives it a vector of movement
that may be parallel to or out of sync with but definitively not the
same as vectors of digital information [21].  Another way of stating
this is to look at the way in which embodiment also carries senses of
personal and cultural histories that often seems to linger, enmeshed
in the fibres of bodily memory.  As Jill Bennett states:

     The poetics of sense memory involve not so much ~speaking of~
     ~speaking out of~ a particular memory or experience - in other
     words, speaking from the body ~sustaining sensation~ [22].

These histories themselves distribute different kinds of speeds
within and across the differences of humans' bodies, making them
resistant, slow, malleable, adaptable, heavy and light.  But as
Hayles suggests, digital signals may have a mode of altering such
things as history and memory in ways that seem out of tempo with
embodied experience "^Åinformation technologies create what I will
call ~flickering signifiers~, characterised by their tendency toward
unexpected metamorphoses, attenuations and dispersions" [23].

It is the differential relation of informational speeds to embodied
speeds that has the potential to create turbulent "blocs" of
sensation.  These occur when, for example, objects morph into strange
and unknown shapes in digital animations or astonishing links between
areas of information become immediately proximate to each other
through online hyperlinks resulting in affective wonder, laughter or
surprise.  Or the screen freezes and adrenalin plummets and anger
rises, as our game character no longer moves in sync with our
movements at the control panel.  I want to argue that there is a body
of digital artwork emerging that specifically "speaks out of"
particular sensations sustained, to argue Bennett's point in another
context, through the relation of digital to corporeal speeds [24].
This work is concerned with the proximity of forces captured in the
production of art work to those affectively produced in the works
reception by its possible viewers.  What is also interesting is the
extent to which this work is located at points of convergence and
conflict with the speeds of digital technologies that affect our
broader day-to-day engagement with machines and cultures.  Artists
working with digital media do concern themselves with the
permutations that their material undergoes by entering into a
relation with code and the capacities of the digital to be affective.
 That is to say, the material that sustains the sensations or through
which an artist enters into affective compounds also passes through a
becoming-incorporeal in digital work.

The form through which a work is realised digitally does, to an
extent, also relate to this issue of speed and its differentials.
The attention Hayles draws to the phenomenon of flickering is
important for it reminds us of the material conditions under which we
most commonly engage with visual digital technologies; the peculiar
rolling light of the computer monitor.  The monitor has proved to be
a difficult space for engaging with digital art perhaps because it
accentuates unbearably that flickering of light but also because it
limits the area for flickering as semiosis, as the glimmering
transformative qualities of the digital to which Hayles also refers
by invoking this term.  Digital artists have often opted to change
the speed of the flicker itself by outputting terminal work to print
media and freezing that movement, as it were.  Or else they have
created installation spaces using large screen projection or video
cube/walls that mediate that flicker through another display
technology such as the video monitor.  When it comes to considering
what kind of aesthetic experiences digital art works offer us we need
to consider the hypermediation of the technology itself through a
range of media machines (video, television, print, photography) and
the speeds through which they engage us with the technology.  In
other words, it is not just our bodies that introduce the question of
histories into the discussion but also digital media themselves.

Rather than producing an exact science of feelings or resulting in a
judgement of taste, a digital aesthetics would at best be an
approximation.  This is not to say that the digital misses its mark
but rather that we need to be cognisant of what the conditions for
contemporary media experience are likely to be.  Digital media are
quite capable of registering affectively; we underestimate our
corporeal capacities if we suggest that the speed and geographical
fragmentation wrought by these media lead to dematerialisation,
indifference or desensitisation.  But we also need to be wary of the
claims made for digital media's abilities to capture a more authentic
or fuller sensorium because of its proximity to "the real".  As Lev
Manovich has argued, the digital's claim to the real is part of a
retrospectively constructed genealogy of Western visual realism that
places the digital image, in particular, as the progressive
overcoming of older technically degraded media [25].  It is possible
and perhaps preferable to unhinge this kind of genealogy by ceasing
to pronounce the digital necessary heir to a dominant tradition.   As
Maras and Sutton argue, a medium is not a single system but a
production that is inherently unstable.  They argue for:

     ^Åthe possibility of understanding medium specificity not in
     of purity or as a norm, but precisely as a product of
     between different elements in an assemblage of material

Digital media have a number of lineages then that can be recalled
depending upon the way these media coalesce and interact with other
media at specific times.  They also have the ability to rearrange
these histories in relation to each other and in relation to the
flows of other matter, such as human corporealities, with and into
new modes of expression.

Approximation as a qualification of the proximate allows several new
ways of dealing with digital aesthetics.  First, it captures the
sense in which an attempt to theorise contemporary artwork and
practices like digital art never quite reaches its destination
because the contemporary is always temporary and is in the process of
being remade.  This occurs at varying speeds wrought by the relations
of corporeal and media histories to each other.  An absolute measure
of speed is unlikely to adequately capture the differential of these
forces but we can provide estimations of the affectivity produced as
part of digital experiences.  Second, approximation machinically
qualifies the sensation of those flashes of affectivity and indeed
the affective hankering after flickering speeds that surround the
making and consumption of digital art as we conterminously make of
the digital our ~habitus~.  Experience of digital artwork is marked
by the broader cultural claims that the integration of computing into
day-to-day life brings about.  The most consistent of these claims is
for the proximity of the digital to housing the real, gleaned at the
level not just of photorealism but also as digital software, hardware
and artists promise their audiences access to the full sensorium

In important ways then a digital aesthetics depends upon the fact
that digital art is culturally indebted to the popularisation of
ideas and claims about what digital technologies are capable of
achieving.  Rather than making the notion of digital art culturally
obsolete, the proximity of this art to the integration of digital
technologies into life remains an ongoing ~raison d'etre~ for a
number of artists making digital work.  This has meant that digital
aesthetics can and have also become approximate to a politics where
the artwork has concentrated on the creation of a digital mode that
is syncopated to the rhythms of an emerging experience of embodiment
marked by digitality.   For a number of female digital artists
working within a postfeminist arena and for people of colour
operating within the politics of postcolonialism this is emerging as
an ongoing concern.  Most importantly approximation gives us a way to
look at what I am suggesting is one of the most important conditions
and issues running through digital art, the problem of proximity
itself [28].

Proximity itself becomes a mode of elaborating not just a relation to
technology but to others and to culture as it is digitally inflected.
  Proximity is thus a way of fleshing out the aesthetics of artwork
that must take into account its reliance on a particular kind of
machine, simultaneously landing the digital artist within the sphere
of the ethical and political.   This is not to say that all digital
artists voice these concerns or are willing to engage with these
issues.  But some of the more conceptually interesting although
possibly less technically "cutting edge" digital work signals
belonging to this proximate aesthetics.  It is possible to argue for
a digital aesthetics that is not confined to the qualities of the
medium, but does develop its own particular concerns produced through
the embodied experiences of living in digital times.  Working through
this notion of proximity indicates how a digital aesthetics can
provide us with a strange set of affinities for both producing and
engaging with new media's artefacts.  Approximation is about paring
down the expectations that the digital, and in particular digital
art, has been burdened with: delivering the real, promising freedom,
authenticity or utopia.  But is also about nearness, the way in which
digital media have an odd way of creating affinities and compounds.

Digital media do, on a larger scale provide the platform for a
broader process of self-composition.  This is not to argue that they
provide some renewed possibility of self-representation or that they
are inherently libertarian or that access to them will provide for a
more open political process.  As black artists such as Keith Piper or
writers such as Cameron Bailey have explicitly shown, cyberspace is
equally a synergy of corporate and military surveillance
technologies.  These regulate, for example, the flow of immigrant
workers in and out of the collapsed nation states and borders of
virtual territories such as the "new European state" [29].  In his
interactive installation of 1992, _Tagging the Other_, Piper
highlights how digital technologies of surveillance have produced an
"other" to this fictional white state.  This "otherness" has been
composed by technologically monitoring the bodies, lives and
movements of South East Asian, West Indian and African migrants
forced to locate and relocate themselves in the wake of
reconfigurations of technology at a worldwide level.  Bailey and
Piper offer us an interesting extension to the debate around
disembodiment by calling attention to the limits of composing
subjectivities that unmitigated notions of flux surrounding the
rhetoric of new technologies in fact imply.  In other words, one
disembodied avatar's gender, race or class fluidity is another
person's lived and dislocated embodiment.

Initial euphoria surrounding the seeming lack of bodily markers in
cyberspatial relations tended to line up with hope for a politics of
tolerance, in for example Sherry Turkle's exploration of net culture
in _Life on the Screen_ [30].   But artists such as Harwood and Piper
and remind us that this rhetoric belongs to the time and space of
particular kinds of subjective compositions.  It is here that
aesthetics opens onto and approximates the questions of ethics, of
our embodied relations and actions towards others.  In composing the
self, given that living digitally that self is foregrounded as
networked and distributed, we are also immanently composing our
relations to others, relations of course which are not fluid in the
way information promotes itself to be.  In Sean Cubitt's words then,
there is a "^Åradical disjuncture between the new media and the new
geopolitics" [31].  As Maria Fernandez argues, constructions of
identity by electronic media theorists and participants tend to
revolve around the extent to which the individual can create or
control their sense of self [32].  This form of hyperindividuation
places the self once more at the centre of a world: claiming a stake
in virtual real estate, controlling the production of virtual
gameworlds and for those artists who deny the ethical implications of
their aesthetic productions, producing digital work that feeds into a
universalist (albeit a flowing, mobilising), informatics.

Cubitt's work on digital aesthetics is important because it
implicates aesthetics within the realm of the ethical by insisting on
the relation between digital art and the economic and social
polarisations brought about by the more general deployment of digital
technologies.  Connectivity, for example, cannot just be thought as
experiences produced by interactive artwork, but as a broader flow of
information that links only certain networks of people throughout the
world (primarily corporate networks) [33].  But Cubitt invests both
too much and too little within the aesthetic sphere.  For him,
aesthetics should offer us a different mode of living in the world,
one which is not of the present time, but for the future.  A digital
aesthetics must transcend its current preoccupations with sedimenting
the power of the coherent self. Cubitt places an engagement with
aesthetics as a contemplative exercise designed to reflect upon the
state of the world.  But aesthetics is very much in and of the world
and because it is so situated at the site of bodies and sensations,
reflection does not work well as its mode of operation.  The artwork
and the digital work no less, cannot offer us, ahead of itself, the
conditions for a better life; it can only give itself over to the
life it is in the process of becoming.

Fernandez makes the salient point that where electronic art and the
postcolonial impulse have met  tends to be within digital art forms
such as digital photomedia and video work, already regarded by some
as obsolete practices of new media [34].  This is enough to remind us
that the hankering after ever newer, grander more complex schemes to
support or actualise art work, especially technological art, is
itself an indication of the wider global distribution of digital
technologies towards the needs and desires of an elite, usually first
world, few.  To suggest then that digital art dissolves into the
ubiquity of digital life is to forget that digital technologies are
most definitely not located everywhere or evenly.  It is worthwhile
pulling apart ~the~ digital as a universal arrangement and into a
diversity of practices whose differences are produced not simply
formally but also via the differing cultural and economic conditions
that the bodies engaged in making and consuming the work find
themselves.   So while this implicates a digital aesthetics within an
ethics of digitality, it does not guarantee that the digital will
raise itself via this connection to more democratic proportions.

The CD-ROM as a digital art practice is placed at the intersection of
a number of these problems and concerns and proves a useful form to
help further elaborate them.  In the spirit of Hernandez's comments
about the aesthetic obsolescence of particular areas of digital art,
the CD-ROM could likewise be seen as having passed its used-by date.
 Interest in it seemed to peak around the mid-90s and this was marked
in Australia, for example, by the 1996 _Burning the Interface_
exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art [35].  While CD-ROMs
continue to be made by artists and attract both commercial and public
sector funding and investment, the form itself seems to have given
way to attention around or to high-tech interactive
installations.  There is a sense in which the CD-ROM as artwork has
failed; failed to attract the commodification of digital art that it
seemed to so easily promise in its cheap and distributable form and
failed as a form to deliver the multimedia experience as an aesthetic
experience [36].  The _Burning the Interface_ exhibition marked this
failure, presenting rows and rows of computer terminals with
different groupings of artists' work at each terminal for viewers to
sit at, all housed within the conventional white wall, concrete floor
of the modern gallery space.  Although the work was public, only one
person could use a terminal at a time and the separation between
notions of the private producer and consumer of digital media and the
public as an audience for contemporary digital art became only too
clear.  Not only did the show bring to the fore the problem of the
monitor as a space for viewing/engaging with digital art, but also in
the promise invested in delivering multimedia at a mass level.  This
promise to provide vast quantities of heterogeneous data within a
standardised space (the desktop), at a speed at least comparable to
broadcast media - largely failed to be met [37].

And yet artists continue to make CD-ROMs and indeed it has become an
area for developing work that is often more ostensibly politically
engaged with the structures of information cultures and the problems
of the senses and embodiment in relation to these structures.  In
order to understand why this is the case we need to think through the
question of what kind of aesthetic experience can be offered by the
CD-ROM as an art work and how this also engages us with broader
questions about where it is placed in relation to other digital
media.  As a number of writers have argued, the interactivity of the
CD-ROM often amounts to choosing between predetermined choices
specified by the parameters of the coding and hence the feeling of
immersion or engagement with the piece, its access to a "full"
virtual engagement seems poorly approximate [38].  The CD-ROM is
haunted by its inability to be digital or to fulfill the promise of
the digital.  This failure translates for the audience of the CD-ROM
artwork into frantically clicking and sweeping the cursor across the
screen waiting for it to refresh, to provide more information, to
come up to speed.

But this is precisely why the CD-ROM could be considered the digital
art form ~par excellence~ if we think about it from the standpoint of
the arguments I have been making about an approximate aesthetics.
Coalescing in one place we find, particularly in artists' CD-ROMs,
speed itself becoming a set of differential relations.  These are
enacted between the participant, the artwork, the bodies that sustain
the production of the work (that is the artist and their
collaborators - programmers, designers, sound artists etc) and the
assemblage that is the technology of the digital computer.  That
frantic clicking for more information is in part produced in relation
to the broader promise of digital media capable of operating at
inhuman speeds.  But it is also a sensation produced in (inverse)
relation to the body of the artist making the CD-ROM.  Typically an
artists' CD-ROM takes around two years to make.  During this time one
finds oneself concentrating enormous amounts of bodily energy around
the small space of the monitor, clicking frantically within the
parameters of off-the shelf software that never seems to fit the
infinite horizon of possibilities that is the project.  Making a
CD-ROM forces one's body to move at lightening speeds, gathering
endless quantities of material from heterogeneous sources, losing
duration for hours in the space of the monitor's flicker,
concentrating the diverging forces of the body to remain tied to
rapid eye and hand movements.  But it is also incomparably slow,
hours of dragging the cursor across a landscape of code to find one
small programming flaw, the repetition of imaging processes, the
constant disruption of imagining the user as interactor, becoming
part of the work's process.  Aside from any content that CD-ROMs
might draw from in terms of the corporeal, they are intimately caught
up with the sensations of digital embodiment as sets of differential
speeds from both the perspective of the artist and the person
interacting with the artwork.  As artist Linda Dement states:

     Aside from the content being from the physical, my flesh,
     restrained at the desk burning my eyes out at the monitor -
     there's that thing that happens when you restrain and focus
     physical energy, tension and stillness and of course eventually
     pain & damage. Almost trance like if it's going well [39].

The CD-ROM itself comes out of a relation (or tension) between
movement and stillness experienced at the embodied level of its
production and by engaging, for the user, with its limited form of
digital interactivity.  If its affective dimension so often registers
as malaise or fatigue with its audience this is perhaps also because
it is for the artist about a tiring of the body in relation to the
triumphant onward march of information, media and technological
saturation.  As Douglas Kahn notes the CD-ROM comes out of a process
of creative fatigue [40].  The fatiguing of media forms as they
recycle themselves through the multimedia format, the fatigue of the
artist's body adjusting to the rhythm of media cycling and
technological upgrade and unfortunately often the end fatigue of the
user who easily tires of its iterative structures.  The art of the
CD-ROM, against its dissolution into an aesthetics of the everyday
boredom of the computer terminal, must lie in its ability to not just
recombine as Kahn suggests but to recompound or recompose the self as

Linda Dement's CD-ROM _In My Gash_ moves us in this direction.  Not
towards the desensitisation of photography and a metaphorics of loss
but towards a resensitisation of the nervous system as a set of
pathways not contained within or on the skin but forming as
relational pathways to machines.  Rather than abandoning a
photographic practice, she has allowed the multimedia platform to
reassemble her visual practices and preoccupations.  Dement's work
has consistently valued a rich, visual style garnered from her
initial aesthetic practice as a studio-based photomedia artist.  In a
sense, _In My Gash_, represents the outcome of Dement's unwillingness
to abandon the quality of the photographic intermeshed with the
potential that low-end interactive media are only beginning to show.
 But _In My Gash_ is more cognisant of the space-time of the computer
monitor and its flickering inability to hold the viewer's gaze.
While these conditions for new media perception often lead to an
hysterical oversaturation of information, Dement uses the opulence of
her photographic practice to slow down this propensity.  _In My Gash_
allows the fullness of her imagery to unfold in relation to the
user's actions, revealing layers and screens of lacerated bodily
organs, destroyed petals, discarded syringes and torn limbs to appear
and fade across the field of vision.  Subsequently the manic desire
to point and click that informs so much interactivity gives way here
to an engagement with the piece as multi-mediated.  This tends to
provide a slower tempo for engagement; iterations do not follow the
speed of cyclical repetition but move in terms of the decomposition
and recomposition of images.  At other points filmic fragments seem
to tear at the fabric of the synthetic computer image as if the
medium that carries an image were itself capable of bearing down upon
the body and wounding it with sensations.  What Dement has been so
successful in achieving through her practice is to redeploy
photographic and filmic ~decoupage~ as the dream and memory space for
multimedia.  The aesthetic experience as the experience of engaging
the interactant at the level of sensation, a shiver in response to
the dilating and contracting of Dement's digital wounds, is
simultaneously a digital mediation of other media experiences.

The zones of proximity digitality can call up for us in contemporary
life include the digital's relations to other media forms such as the
photographic and the cinematic and to institutions such as the
gallery, museum and archive in which art and media are housed and
displayed.  They also include our relations to others in the world
and thus implicate the production of digital aesthetics within a
wider context of ethics.  As a result of both of these foregoing sets
of relations, digitality as an aesthesia is produced in a relation of
(a)proximity to embodiment.  I have signalled that this closeness to
the sensate and affective dimensions of life can only be grasped as
approximate.  Yet the aesthetic experiences this produces might be
described as uncomfortable in their proximity, in the case of
Harwood's work or galvanic in a work like Dement's _In My Gash_.
The digital in both its production by artists and consumption by
audiences introduces a universe of reference that is both
hypermediated and incorporeal.  But current experiences of extended
and distributed embodiment, which aesthetic digital experience can
offers us, are also recompositions of materiality through its
differential relation to immaterial information.

[1] M. Fuller, "Breach the pieces" (accessed 16/02/01).

[2] Mitchell Whitelaw, "The end of new media art?", Working the
Screen 2000, special issue of _Realtime_, no.38, August-September
p.7.  The same point was made at the end of the 1980s when the
nomenclature of "computer art" was beginning to seem a little drab.
See, R. Wright, "The Image in Art" and "Computer Art", _Leonardo,
Computer Art in Context Supplemental Issue_, 1989, pp.49-53.

[3] See for example F. Popper, _The Art of the Electronic Age_,
and Hudson, London, 1993.pp.86-87.

[4] See Harwood@mongrel, "Uncomfortable Proximity"

[5] Mongrel in fact deploy a general strategy of hacking to create
parallel .networks and virtual spaces rather than as a means to
directly subvert or destroy pre-existing sites.  Their development of
the "Natural Selection" project uses code from widely used Internet
search engines redesigned to promote portals for anti-racist sites
and artwork.
See (accessed

[6] See M. Fuller, "Breach the Pieces", op. cit.

[7] ibid.  It is this breaking up of space achieved by producing
relations between the virtual and the concrete, the digital and the
actual which occurs so often in digital art.  This makes it resonate
with earlier spaces of museum collection that began in the sixteenth
and seventeenth centuries through, for example, the _Wunderkammer_.
See B. M. Stafford, _Good Looking: Essays on the Virtue of Images_,
Press, London and Cambridge, 1996, pp.32-34.

[8] Harwood@mongrel "Uncomfortable Proximity", op. cit.

[9] M. Fuller, "Breach the Pieces", op. cit.

[10] See G. Deleuze, _Francis Bacon: The logic of sensation_, D. W.
Smith, private translation, 1992, p.61.

[11] R.L. Rutsky has made a sustained argument for the fetishism that
surrounds the notion of "state-of-the-art" in relation to technology
in the way that artists, designers, theorists, entrepreneurs,
publicists and advertisers all deploy this term.  See R. L. Rutsky,
_High Techne: Art and Technology from the Machine Aesthetic to the
Posthuman_, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis and London,

[12] See, for example, R. Ascott, "On Networking", _Leonardo_,
no.3, 1988, pp.231-2.

[13] C. Greenberg, "Modernist Painting", _Art and Literature_, no.4,
Spring 1965, pp.193-201.

[14] See, F. Popper, _The Art of the Electronic Age_, Thames and
Hudson, London, 1993; and C. Goodman, _Digital Visions: Computers and
Art_, Harry N. Abrams, Inc. Publishers, New York, 1987.

[15] See D. Tofts, "Your Place or Mine?: Locating Digital Art",
no.10, Spring 1996, pp.3-4 and S. Holtzman, Digital Mosaics: The
Aesthetics of Cyberspace, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1997.

[16] This point is likewise made by Steven Maras and David Sutton in
their article, "Medium Specificity Re-Visited", _Convergence: The
Journal of Research into New Media Technologies_, vol.6, no.2, Summer
2000, pp.99-113.  This article is particularly useful, mapping out a
recent history of the notion of medium specificity in relation to new

[17] This is Deleuze and Guattari's description of the grouping of
sensations into affectual moments that occur in aesthetic experience.
 See, G. Deleuze and F. Guattari, "What is Philosophy?", H. Tomlinson
trans, Columbia University Press, New York, 1994, pp.173-4.

[18] ibid., p.173.

[19] ibid.

[20] G. Deleuze, "Ethology: Spinoza and Us", _Incorporations_, eds J.
Crarey and S. Kwinter, Zone Books, New York, 1992, p.262.

[21] N. K. Hayles, " Virtual Bodies and Flickering Signifiers",
_Electronic Culture: Technology and Visual Representation_, T.
ed, Aperture Foundation, New York, 1996, pp.262-3.

[22] J. Bennett, "The Aesthetics of Sense-memory: Theorising Trauma
Through The Visual Arts", eds F. Kaltenbexk and P. Weibel, _Trauma
Memory: Cross-Cultural Perspectives_, Passagen Verlag, Graz, 2000,
p.87.  Bennett's argument in this paper develops some of Deleuze's
notions of sensation to account for the way in which visual arts can
be produced out of a field of bodily memories (such as those of child
abuse) and can also produce affective responses in the viewer.  She
argues against the notion of art as representation as this removes
the aesthetic experience of the artwork, especially artwork dealing
with traumatic experience, away from the bodily context out of which
it is produced by the artist and which allows it to register for its

[23] N. K. Hayles, "Virtual Bodies and Flickering Signifiers",
_Electronic Culture: Technology and Visual Representation_, op. cit.,

[24] J. Bennett, "The Aesthetics of Sense-memory: Theorising Trauma
Through The Visual Arts" op. cit.

[25] L. Manovich, "The Paradoxes of Digital Photography",

[26] S. Maras and D. Sutton "Medium Specificity Re-Visited",
_Convergence: The Journal of Research into New Media Technologies_,
cit., p.102.

[27] Perhaps the best example would be Jaron Lanier's prediction for
an ultimate experience of virtual reality in which all of the senses
would respond to the experience of a virtually created and shared
reality. See, J. Lanier, "A Vintage Virtual Reality Interview" 16/9/00).

[28] My discussion of this notion of proximity was spurred on by
conversations held over the last year with Mitchell Whitelaw.  I am
grateful for his sense of provocation and for his intellectual and
conversational generosity.

[29] See, for example, Piper's own discussion of his piece:

     The new technologies that are being implemented to fix and
     the "un-European other", in the faltering consolidation of this
     "new European state", form the basis of Tagging the Other.
     Central to the piece are the framing and fixing of the black
     European, under a high-tech gaze - a gaze that seeks to classify
     and codify the individual within an arena where the logical
     constraints of race, ethnicity, nationality and culture are
     unchanging, and delineated in a discourse of exclusion.

K. Piper, "Tagging the Other", _Iterations: The New Image_,. T.
Druckrey ed, International Centre of Photography and MIT Press,
Cambridge, Massachusetts, and London, 1993, p.121.

[30] See, for example, Turkle's argument:

     When identity was defined as unitary and solid, it was
     easy to recognise and censure deviation from a norm.  A more
     fluid sense of self allows a greater capacity for understanding
     diversity. It makes it easier to accept the array of our (and
     others') inconsistent personae - perhaps with humour, perhaps
     with irony.  We do not feel compelled to rank or judge the
     elements of our multiplicity.  We do not feel compelled to
     exclude what does not fit.

S. Turkle, _Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet_,
Phoenix, London, 1997, pp.261-2.

[31] S. Cubitt, "Orbus Tertius", _Third Text_, no.47, Summer 1999,

[32] M. Fernandez, "Postcolonial Media Theory", _Third Text_, no.47,
Summer 1999, p.14.

[33] ibid., p.14.

[34] M. Fernandez, "Postcolonial Media Theory", op. cit., p.15.

[35] The ~Burning the Interface~ exhibition ran from 27 March to 14
July 1996 at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, Australia.  It
was curated by Mike Leggett and Linda Michael and was an
international survey of CD-ROMs by artists.

[36] Michael Punt argues that the CD-ROM has failed to deliver as a
mass market phenomenon because of the technological constraints that
it places on the user - one can only read and retrieve data, not
write back to it - and because the way in which it has been conceived
by producers as a storage medium.  Users on the other hand use it to
retrieve information but producers often fail to look at the models
of retrieval they build into their design.  As a result the
interactivity of the CD-ROM is hardly that; the user is reduced to
merely following the "command" to retrieve and as a result finds the
experience to be one of a command control dynamic rather than the
celebrated, open, connected, democratic, multimedia environment.  See
M. Punt, "CD-ROM: Radical Nostalgia? Cinema History, Cinema Theory
and New Technology", _Leonardo_, vol.28, no.5, 1995, pp.387-394.

[37] See ibid., pp.388-9.

[38] See for example, Z. Sofoulis, "Interactivity, Intersubjectivity
and the Artwork/Network", _Mesh_, no.10, 1996, pp.32-5; and K.
"Mouse, where is thy sting?" _Burning the Interface: International
Artists' CD-ROM, catalogue_, Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney,

[39] Private email correspondence with Linda Dement, August 8, 2000.

[40] D.Kahn, "What Now the Promise?", _Burning the Interface:
International Artist's CD-ROM_, op. cit, p.24.


Anna Munster lectures in Digital Media Theory in the School of Art
History and Theory at the College of Fine Arts, University of New
South Wales, Sydney, Australia.  She is also a practising digital
artist whose digital print work was recently part of the USA touring
exhibition Digital2000 for ASCI. She has just completed a website
wundernet ( on wonder, curiosity,
the digital and baroque and is currently working on a CD-ROM
expansion of this titled Wunderkammer, due for release in 2001.

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