Lev Manovich on Wed, 13 Nov 1996 11:40:32 -0800

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Media Art West/Eas

Hi everybody,

I recently joined this list and I wanted to introduce myself and join the

Greetings from Sunnay San Diego! My name is Lev Manovich; I was born in
Moscow, moved to the U.S. in 1981 and have been working with computer media
as a writer and an artist since 1984. Many of my texts deal with the East /
West problematic in relation to media art, as can be seen from the titles
such as "Socialist Realism and Computer Simulation in 'Jurrasic Park,'" or
"Avant-garde, Cyberspace, and Future Architecture." Presently I am
completing a book enitled "Visual Labor from Constructivism to Computers"
which traces the origins of new media during the Cold War military research
and also develops the parallels between the 1920s avant-garde and computer

I look forward to participating in some of the future events and festivals
related to media art in the East and meeting many of you in person, but for
now I wanted to offer a short text. I posted it to www.rhizome.com a few
weeks ago, and, to my suprise, did not get much of response. Maybe this
only proves my point (see below...)

Lev Manovich

(notes from the enemy of the people)

In "Art, Power, and Communication" (RHIZOME DIGEST: October 11, 1996.
http://www.rhizome.com ) Alexei Shulgin writes:

"Looking at very popular media art form such as
"interactive installation" I always wonder how people (viewers) are
exited about this new way of manipulation on them. 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. Their manipulators
artists feel that and are using seduces of newest technologies (future
now!) to involve people in their pseudo-interactive games obviously
based on banal will for power. But what nice words you can hear around
it: interaction, interface for self-expression, artificial intelligence,
communication even. So, emergence of media art is characterised by
transition from representation to manipulation."

Alexei Shulgin is right in analyzing the phenomenon of interactive art and
media as a shift from representation to manipulation. Yes, interactive
computer installations indeed represent an advanced form of audience
manipulation, where the subject is put within a structure very similar to
an experimental setup of a psychological laboratory or a high-tech torture
chamber of CIA or KGB, the kind we saw frequently in spy films of the Cold
War era. Yet -- precisely because I -- who was born in Moscow and grew up
there during Breznev's era -- is so happy to agree with Shulgin's
conclusions -- I recognize the limitations of this analysis, or rather, its
cultural specificity. It is only a post-communist subject who can see
interactive art and media in these terms. (No surprisingly, in a
conversation I had last year, another post-communist subject -- art critic
Boris Groys -- analyzed interactive computer installations in a very
similar way).
        The experiences of East and West structure how new media is seen in
both places. For the West, interactivity is a perfect vehicle for the ideas
of democracy and equality. For the East, it is another form of
manipulation, in which the artist uses advanced technology to impose his /
her totalitarian will on the people. (On modern artist as a totalitarian
ruler see the works of  Boris Groys.) Western media artists usually take
technology absolutely seriously and despair when it does not work.
Post-communist artists, on the other hand, recognize that the nature of
technology is that it does not work, will always breakdown, will never work
as it is supposed to... (For instance, Moscow conceptual artist and poet
Dimity Prigov did an event during ISEA '94 in which he used business
translation programs to translate a famous nineteenth Russian poem by
Pyshkin from Russian into Finnish and then from Finnish into English; he
declared the mistakes in translation a new work of art.) A Western artist
sees Internet as a perfect tool to break down all hierarchies and bring the
art to the people (while in reality more often than not using it as a
super-media to promote his / her name ). In contrast, as a post-communist
subject, I cannot but see Internet as a communal apartment of Stalin era:
no privacy, everybody spies on everybody else, always present line for
common areas such as the toilet or the kitchen. Or I can think of it as a
giant garbage site for the information society, with everybody dumping
their used products of intellectual labor and nobody cleaning up. Or as a
new, mass Panopticum (which was already realized in communist societies) --
complete transparency, everybody can track everybody else.
        I apologize if I am making you mad. I promise to write on the
blackboard, until the chalk runs out: Internet is good for the people,
Internet is good for the people, Internet is good for the people, Internet
is good for the people. Down with the Museum, Down with the Museum, Down
with the Museum, Down with the Museum. Workers of the World, Connect;
Workers of the World, Connect; Workers of the World, Connect; Workers of
the World, Connect. I promise to march in happy columns, screaming slogans,
my face reflecting the shiny pixels of the  new version of Netscape
browser. Ideology, history, class struggle are finally over, replaced by
Microsoft vs. Netscape war and Java objects. Long Live Digital Revolution!

        But before I give in, I would like to offer you one more thought,
the last download from "the enemy of the people" -- one more argument about
interactivity as a totalitarian art form. All classical, and even more so
modern art was already "interactive," requiring a viewer to fill in missing
information (for instance, ellipses in literary narration; "missing" parts
of objects in modernist paiting) as well as to move his / her eyes
(composition in painting and cinema) or the whole body (in experiencing
sculpture and architecture). Computer interactive art takes "interaction"
literally, equating it with strictly physical interaction between a user
and a artwork (pressing a button), at the sake of psychological
interaction. The psychological processes of filling-in, hypothesis forming,
recall and identification -- which are required for us to comprehend any
text or image at all -- are mistakingly identified strictly with an
objectively existing structure of interactive links.
        This literal quality can be seen as another example of a larger
modern trend of externalization of mental life, the process in which new
media technologies -- photography, film, VR -- have played a key role. On
the one hand, we witness recurrent claims by the users and theorists of new
media technologies, from Francis Galton (the inventor of composite
photography in the 1870s) to Hugo Munsterberg, Sergei Eisenstein and,
recently, Jaron Lanier, that these technologies externalize and objectify
the mind. On the other hand, modern psychological theories of the mind,
from Freud to cognitive psychology, also equate mental processes with
external, technologically generated visual forms.
        Interactive computer media perfectly fits in this trend. Mental
processes of reflection, problem solving, memory and association are
externalized, equated with following a link, moving to a new image,
choosing a new scene or a text. In fact, the very principle of new media --
links --  objectifies the process of human thinking which involves
connecting ideas, images, memories. Now, with interactive media, instead of
looking at a painting and mentally following our own private associations
to other images, memories, ideas, we are asked to click on the image on the
screen in order to go to another image on the screen, and so on. Thus we
are asked to follow pre-programmed, objectively existing associations. In
short, in what can be read as a new updated version of Althusser's
"interpolation," we are asked to mistake the structure of somebody's else
mind for our own.
        This is a new kind of identification appropriate for the
information age of cognitive labor. The cultural technologies of an
industrial society -- cinema and fashion -- asked us to identify with
somebody's bodily image. The interactive media asks us to identify with
somebody's else mental structure.

(I develop the arguments about modern media technologies and
externalization of mental life in more detail in "From the Externalization
of the Psyche to the Implantation of Technology." In _Mind Revolution:
Interface Brain/Computer_, edited by Florian Rötzer, 90-100. München:
Akademie Zum Dritten Jahrtausend, 1995.)

A number of my essays are available online at: http://jupiter.ucsd.edu/~manovich


Dr. Lev Manovich
Visual Arts Department, 0327
University of California, San Diego
9500 Gilman Drive
La Jolla, CA 92093-0327

phone (studio):      619-822-1012
fax (department):  619-534-8651
email:                   manovich@ucsd.edu
www:                   http://jupiter.ucsd.edu/~manovich