Marc Lafia on Fri, 26 Apr 2002 14:51:48 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Algorithms and Allegories

ŒI asked myself what is truth. I went to the
window, I looked out, I wrote: Now, it is
morning. I went to the window, I looked
out, I wrote: Now it is night. I asked myself,
what remains? What remains is this: Now it is.ı
Alain Robbe-Grillet

The Upgrade is a monthly gathering of artists involved in network art in New
York City. Much of this work is known by an international audience, and to
many of you, who like me, subscribe to this list. Given recent discussions
about Flash, video art (now conducted on the losslessvideo list) and other
new media related posts; I thought Iıd post with some thoughts. I have been
interested in this idea of allegories and algorithms as a way to think about
contemporary art practice and it struck me that the last two Upgrades and
the works presented there were well suited as a starting point to put this

It is interesting that last monthıs presentation by Mark Napier was a work
we can call algorithmic, a set of instructions are set in motion and
something emerges; patterns, colors, shapes. In the story space and
hypertext works Christiane Paul presented, the works start with a metaphor,
usually a spatial metaphor, an hourglass, a set of rooms, the body. The
narrative then is spatially distributed and reflects back or speaks from
this shape. The work is to perform this shape and the shape is the very
sense of the narrative or the work. The following might best describe
procedurally what is happening.

ŒAllegory attempts to evoke a dual interest, one in the events, characters,
and settings presented, and the other in the ideas they are intended to
convey or the significance they bear.ı from Thrall, Hibbard, Holman, A
Handbook to Literature

Conversely, algorithmic work such as Napierıs, carnivore and much of flash
work, sets up routines, loops and varied instructions from which a shape
emerges. Of course the algorithm runs within a proscribed set of parameters,
but this is not quite a shape. In algorithmic work, what emerges is unknown,
is indeterminate in the sense that its inscription is at the level of code,
and what we see is a rendering of instructions. Here in lies the surprise,
the beauty, if not, a kind of sublime, as this second order of writing, this
writing of computation, this rendering if you like, is not known until the
engine runs the program. When the instructions run, what we see is more
than, is something not exactly known until computation and the program
perform the instruction. Through computation something yet known appears.
There is a sense of the marvelous in this.

To take this further, Monday evening at the New School, I went to a
presentation of the works of Simon Biggs, whose performance interactive
installation work presents life-size, if not larger, figures on a screen who
move in concert with the action of the audience standing in front of them.
The feeling in this relation of audience and screen can be described as
something uncanny, spectral. It is in some sense a trick effect that both
delights and frightens us. It gave me a feeling of awe, apprehension, a kind
of dread, or terror. It has this feeling of the other of ourselves, the
double, the doppelganger disappearing into the ether. Could this have been
what it was like to see early works of automata or a first screening of a
Melies film? Here again computation results in an effect more-than, in a
kind of conjuring, an admixture of man and machine in a confluence that
exceeds author and tool.

In hypertextual or narrative works the hand of the author is always present,
it is the inscription. The work engages at the level of the proficiency of
the author, how well he or she can wield the terrain, command the tropes and
move us about. Here, the work is not the wand; itıs the magician. In the
realm of forms we know, such as narrative, even hypertextual narrative,
weıve seen many of the tricks in this bag. We know the bag. As proficient as
the author may be, that element of surprise, of delight is not quite the
same for us. 

Perhaps new media is a new bag entirely and thatıs what draws us to it.
When we hear a medium is exhausted, painting is dead, video is dead, film is
dead, the theatre is dead, what are we are saying? Perhaps weıre saying,
there is a deadness in my feelings for these things. These things no longer
speak to the world, to me. I already know these things, the shape of these

The afternoon of the evening I saw Simon present his work I went to see the
film, ŒYu Tu Mama, Tambienı. Two days earlier, I saw the Bruce Nauman video
installation at the Dia, ŒMapping the Studioı. As familiar as these forms
were, I took a certain pleasure in them. Perhaps another kind of pleasure.
That pleasure may have been that these works seemed to be in search of
themselves, they were not known at the outset, but came to be discovered in
there making. 

Allegoric work then, may be said to be work that knows itself already, that
illustrates what it knows from the outset. It is only a question of
distributing it. What delights us in instructions or the algorithmic is the
unknown of the trajectories they set forth whereas allegory may be an
abstraction in the guise of a concrete image, an image already known. Then
again, until we know the shape of our algorithms, we donıt know the allegory
weıre living in, until perhaps, at such time, it is framed for us and then
algorithmic work will no longer delight us, unless of course, its truth is
the pursuit of the now of itself.

"Before the work of art, there is nothing-no certainty, no thesis, no
message. To believe that the novelist "has something to say" and that he
then looks for a way to say it represents the gravest of misconceptions. For
it is precisely this "way," this manner of speaking, which constitutes his
enterprise as a writer, an enterprise more obscure than any other, and which
will later be the uncertain content of his book. Ultimately it is perhaps
this uncertain content of an obscure enterprise of form which will best
serve the cause of freedom. But who knows how long that will take?"  Alain

Marc Lafia 

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