Geert Lovink on Thu, 31 Jul 1997 11:15:15 +0200 (MET DST)

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<nettime> Lev Manovich: Behind the Screen / Russian New Media [1]

From: (Lev Manovich)
Subject: feel free to post this now on the Net!

Behind the Screen / Russian New Media [1]

Lev Manovich

        Should we be surprised that as the new computer-based media expand
throughout the world, intellectual horizons and aesthetic possibilities
seem to be narrowing?  If one scans Internet-based discussion groups and
journals from London to Budapest, New York to Berlin, and Los Angeles to
Tokyo, certain themes are obsessively intoned, like mantras:  copyright;
on-line identity;  cyborgs; interactivity;  the future of the Internet.
This follows from the Microsofting of the planet, which has cast a uniform
digital aesthetics over national visual cultures, accelerating the
globalization already begun by Hollywood, MTV, and consumer packaging:
hyperlinks and cute icons, animated fly-throughs, rainbow color palettes,
and Phong-shaded spheres are ubiquitous, and apparently inescapable.

        So, given its intellectual traditions, totalitarian experience,
distinct twentieth century visuality (a particular mixture of the Northern
and the Communist, the gray and the bleak), and finally, its continuing
pre-occupation with the brilliant avant-garde experimentation on the 1910s
and 1920s, can we expect a different response to new media on the part of
Russian artists and intellectuals? What will -- or could -- result from the
juxtaposition of the Netscape Navigator web browser's frames with
Eisenstein's theories of montage? It would be dangerous to reduce
heterogeneous engagements to a single common denominator, some kind of
unique "Russian New Media" meme. Yet a number of common threads do exist.
These provide a useful alternative to the West's default thematics,
while articulating a distinctive visual poetics of new media.

        One of these threads is the attitude of suspicion and irony.
Moscow's Alexei Shulgin writes of the excitement generated by interactive
installations (and I quote from the website): "It seems that manipulation
is the only form of communication they know and can appreciate. They are
happily following very few options given to them by artists: press left or
right button, jump or sit." He views artists as manipulators employing the
seductions of the newest technologies "to involve people in their
pseudo-interactive games obviously based on [the] banal will for power...
[The] emergence of media art is characterized by transition from
representation to manipulation." [2]

        Shulgin views interactive art and media as creating structures that
are frighteningly similar to the psychological laboratories the CIA and the
KGB operated during the Cold War era. I was born in Moscow and grew up
there during Breznev's era, so I find his thoughts not only logical but
enthralling. Yet my investment in his conclusions doesn't blind me to the
limitations of his analysis, or rather, its cultural specificity:  it takes
a post-communist subject to frame interactive art and media in such stark

        For a Western artist, that is, interactivity is a perfect vehicle
both to represent and promulgate ideals of democracy and equality;  for a
post-communist, it is yet another form of manipulation, in which artists
use advanced technology to impose their totalitarian wills on the people.
Further, Western media artists usually take technology absolutely
seriously, despairing when it does not work;  post-communist artists, on
the other hand, recognize that the nature of technology is that it does not
work, that it will necessarily break down.  Having grown up in a society
where truth and lie, reality and propaganda always go hand in hand, the
post-communist artist is ready to accept the basic truisms of life in an
information society (spelled out in Claude Shannon's mathematical theory of
communication): that every signal always contains some noise; that signal
and noise are qualitatively the same; and that what is noise in one
situation can be signal in another.

        In this spirit, Moscow conceptual artist and poet Dmitry Prigov
organized a performance during the International Symposium on Electronic
Art in Helsinki (1994) in which he used business traveller's software on
one of Aleksander Pushkin's nineteenth century poems, translating it from
Russian into Finnish, and then from Finnish into English. For Prigov, the
final product was not a miserably misbegotten translation, twice removed
from the source, but a new poem, its originality indebted -- however
ironically -- to the operations of the lowest level of artificial

        Like Prigov's performance, Shulgin's own new media projects can be
described as meta-art. In contrast to many of his western colleagues who
feel that they have to colonize and appropriate the Web through a distinct
category of "artists' web projects," Shulgin proceeds from the assumption
that Web "is an open space where the difference between 'art' and 'not art'
has become blurred as never before in XXth century." In this spirit he
established the WWWArt Medal <> to be awarded
 to "web-pages that were created not as art works but gave us definite
'art' feeling."
Visitors check links to a variety of "found" Web pages
(importantly, not a single one of them is an "artists' web project"), which
have been singled out for "flashing," "moderation" and "valiant
psychedelics," among other categories. Like Prigov's poem, another of
Shulgin's sites, "Remedy for Information Disease"
<>, functions as a noise generator, implying that
the cure for data overload is to shift from receiving to broadcasting.

        Prigov and Shulgin exemplify how the conceptualism which has
recently dominated the Moscow art scene offers a valuable strategy for
approaching new media. Another strategy positions Russian new media
within a larger historical tradition of "screen culture."  For Russian thinkers,
the meaning of the screen expands far beyond its function as a surface
displaying an image originating from elsewhere: it is also a bridge across
two spaces, one physical, one imaginary;  a link between a human subject
and an audio-visual stream;  and a rectangular window which opens onto
alternative (virtual) reality.  So understood, the "screen" is that which
unites old and new media, still and moving image, analog and digital

        The emphasis on the screen as a space that opens onto an
alternative reality is echoed in much modern Russian art which remains
firmly committed to the tradition of easel painting. In contrast to the
West, where artists gave up on illusionistic pictorial space in favor of
the notion of a painting as a self-sufficient material object, many Russian
artists, both representational and abstract, continue to conceive of a
painting ("kartina") as a parallel reality which begins at the picture
frame and extends towards infinity. Thus, Eric Bulatov has described his
paintings as windows onto another, spiritual universe, while Ilya Kabakov
conceptualizes his installations as a logical expansion of pictorial
traditions into the third dimension -- a materialization of reality models
previously presented by painting. [3]

        Young Russian media artists are using the computer as an excuse to
re-think basic categories and mechanisms of screen culture, such as frame,
montage, and illusionistic space. Thus, rather than representing a radical
break with the past, the computer screen becomes, for them, a
re-articulation of the models which have defined screen consciousness for
centuries. "My boyfriend came back from war!" is a Web-based work by the
young Muscovite Olga Lialina <>.
Using the web browser's capability to create frames within frames,
Lialina leads us through a series of pages which begin with an undivided
screen and
become progressively divided into more and more frames as we follow
different links. Throughout, an image of a human couple and of a constantly
blinking window remain on the left part of screen. These two images enter
into new combinations with texts and images themselves engendered by the
user's interaction with the site. In this way, Lialina creatively bridges
principles of traditional parallel montage, as it existed in the cinema,
and the evolving possibilities of interactive hypertext.

        St. Petersburg-based Olga Tobreluts uses a computer to expand the
possibilities of cinematic montage in a different way. In "Gore ot Uma"
(1994), a video work based on a famous play written by an early nineteenth
century writer Aleksandr Griboedov and directed by Olga Komarova,
Tobreluts seamlessly composes images representing radically different
 realities on the windows and walls of various interior spaces.
In one scene, two characters converse in front of a window which opens up
onto a shock of soaring birds taken from Alfred Hitchcock's "The Birds";
in another, a delicate computer- rendered design fades in onto a wall
behind a dancing couple.  Because Tobreluts bends composited images to
follow the same perspective as the rest of the shots, the two realities
appear to inhabit the same physical space.  The result is a different kind
of  montage for digital cinema. [4]  Which is to say, if the 1920s
avant-garde, and MTV in its wake, juxtaposed radically different realities
within a single image, and if Hollywood digital artists use computer
compositing to glue different images into a seamless illusionistic space
(for instance, synthetic dinosaurs composited against filmed landscape in
"Jurassic Park") Tobreluts explores the creative space between these two

        Lialina and Tobreluts' projects offer a vision of how Russian new
media artists can negotiate between the extreme materialism of Western
computer art practice and the historicism and conceptualism characteristic
of their country's art. The question remains, however, will Russia be able
to stop the march of Bill Gates' aesthetic imperialism, the way she
previously froze out the armies of Napoleon?


[1] This text was originally published in Art + Text (Summer 1997). I am very
grateful to Peter Lunefeld and Susan Kandel for editing.

[2] Rhizome Digest: October 11, 1996, <>.

[3] Eric Bulatov, conversation with the author, 1980; Ilya Kabakov, On the
"Total" Installation (Bonn: Cantz Verlag, 1995).

[4] I explore digital compositing in relation to the history of cinema in
more depth in "To Lie and to Act: Potemkin's Villages, Cinema and
Telepresence," in Mythos Information -- Welcome to the Wired World. Ars
Electronica 95, edited by Karl Gebel and Peter Weibel,  (Vienna and New
York: Springler-Verlag, 1995): 343-353.

Dr. Lev Manovich is an artist and a theorist working in new media
on the faculty at the University of California, San Diego. His book
"The Engineering of Vision from Constructivism to Virtual Reality"
is forthcoming from the University of Texas Press.

Dr. Lev Manovich

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