Date: Sun, 6 Oct 1996 14:27:07 +0100
From: email@example.com (Andreas Broeckmann)
Towards an Aesthetics of Heterogenesis
The notion of 'media art' is frequently criticised for suggesting a specificity of content or aesthetics which cannot really be deduced from the use of electronic media. However, I still believe in the heuristic applicability of the term and will here use it to describe art that deploys digital media. Media art thus has a pre-history in practices like mail art or experimental film and video, but the fact that digital media are based on the semiotically indistinct unit of the bit mean that, more than those other practices, it has to work with the inherent non-specificity and instability of its primary material. Media art has to consider time as a crucial constituent factor and is necessarily process-oriented and aimed at the triggering of singular, irreversible events. The potential openness of working with the digital material also offers the possibility of interactivity and the dissolution of the border between artist and audience, between producer and user. Very often the artists are now the (first) users, and the users are the producers proper.
Obviously the term 'media art' does not describe a single practice, nor is it fundamentally separate from other art forms. Yet, similar to architecture in the 15th and 16th centuries, graphic art in the 17th and 18th centuries, or photography and film in the 19th and 20th centuries, media art does pose a number of particular questions. Which means that it may not necessarily require the formulation of a specific aesthetics, but that there are particular working conditions which have particular aesthetic effects.
This essay continues an argument which was begun in the 'Tactical Media/Media Ecology' text which was partly printed in ZKP1. It will first discuss a few examples of contemporary media art practices in order to describe the context and the means and conditions of production of such practices and will then try to suggest some theoretical aspects of an aesthetics of media art. These suggestions are prescriptive insofar as I feel there is a need to work towards a more critical understanding of the way in which media art intervenes into existing cultural and social processes.
Since 1992, the Polish-American artist and industrial designer Krzysztof Wodiczko has been developing prototypes of the 'Alien Staff', a portable instrument of a size and shape not dissimilar to the Christian bishop's staff, or the staff of a sage. The Alien Staff is a mobile communication system and prosthetic instrument which facilitates the communication of immigrants and aliens in the countries to which they have migrated and in which they have insufficient command of the language to communicate on a par with the native inhabitants. It consists of a hand-held staff which has a small LCD video monitor and loudspeaker at the top, both of which are connected to a video player that the operator carries in a bag around the shoulder. Video recordings are made in which the operator narrates episodes from her or his migrant life, and experiences with the 'natives'. Parts of the shaft of the Staff are transparent containers in which the operator can store important documents, papers, souvenirs, etc. The Staff is offered to migrants in temporary projects so that they can take it out into the streets or other public places where they can confront the local population with their personal, mediated stories about a life which is often all but ignored in everyday culture. This can trigger conversations which will give a public space to the communication about, and awareness of, the context and backgrounds of the migrants' lives.
Mediafilter, a World Wide Web site which was first brought online by the media artist and activist Paul Garrin in the winter of 1994-95, combines a variety of political and artistic initiatives that are here brought together in a shared environment. One emphasis lies on projects which deal with the former war zones of ex-Yugoslavia, like the Zamir-network which still provides a vital channel of communication with and betweenpeace and opposition groups in the different republics, or the independent Zagreb weekly, arkzin, one of the few remaining critical voices in the region whose articles have been made available in English on Mediafilter. Paul Garrin is particularly concerned with keeping the Internet open for independent users and to allow for as much freedom in choosing protocols and encryption tools. This is why his recent activities, like the name.space project which challenges the current, centralised system of domain name allocation, are all aimed at reclaiming sections of the 'digital territories'. Information pages, discussion forums, visual and text-based commentaries on the situation in the public war zone make Mediafilter exemplary for the support function that the network media can have, and for a form of media practice that is not concerned with its classification (or not) as art, and that draws a particular, perhaps 'aesthetic' dimension from this indifference.
The work of the Cologne-based group Knowbotic Research + cF frequently leads to complex spatial installations which function as interfaces between the computer's world of data and the human experiential world. The project Dialogue With The Knowbotic South uses and transforms scientific data about Antarctica, a 'natural space' about which humans have an almost exclusively mediated knowledge based on such abstract de- and recoded data. For the installation, knowbots, a type of computer agents, collect data related to Antarctica from the Internet and translate them in to a series of experiential interfaces: zones of cold air, light pads, projected pixel formations, interfaces which allow the visitor of the installation to experience the content of the data in a both abstract and intuitive manner, to explore them in greater detail, and to partly manipulate them. Our conception of Antarctica is that of a 'Computer Aided Nature' (CAN), and DWTKS can be seen as a presentation of the process through which we appropriate a world experienced through media. A more recent project by KR+cF, Anonymous Muttering, to which I will return presently, emphasises the aspect of manipulability and the joint agency of human and machinic agents.
Tactical media like Shotgun TV, the Austrian group Contained's mobile video weapon, like Mediafilter or the Alien Staff, do not operate on a broad, strategic level, but aim at the triggering of singular events, they create limited turbulences in public spaces and link up with broader, political strategies only a secondary level. As another example, we can point to the work of the net-workers of the Viennese Silverserver, where groups like Mamax (Margarete Jahrmann and Max Moswitzer), Etoy and others develop a network environment full of friction which deals with the technical and political dimensions of the Internet. The production of network weapons and digital surveillance tools, the 'hijacking' of other people's data and the revelation of economic relations are not so much presented as a self-reflexive political critique, but as a cheerful kind of activism in the tradition of Situationism.
Most of these practices are based on an almost natural tendency to work collectively. Artists in the more narrow sense work together with programmers, with technicians, with disk-jockeys and curators, forming new collaborations which, moreover, intentionally aim at an extension of the network of producers. For these media workers, dispersal and transversality are key operational categories, and authorship is no longer a necessary parameter of their work, even if it is sometimes still used for practical, economic or systemic reasons. We should not underestimate the degree to which envy, fame, sex, money and power still play their roles, but in the described area of media art practice, authorship is no longer a necessary condition, but a method that is chosen or rejected more or less consciously.
These circumstances are directly connected to the development of permanent or temporary 'shared workspaces' on the Internet where users can work together on visual, textual and accoustic projects in two- and three-dimensional representations. (For some examples, cf <www.v2.nl/DEAF/96/nodes/wiretap>.) At the same time, the emerging forms of networked discourses are less oriented towards a continuation of exchanges as one knows them from academic journals, but rather resemble fast and engaged conversations in bars or salons. (cf <www.v2.nl/DEAF/96/nodes/delocations>) In this discursive environment, it has become virtually impossible to lay a claim to the property of ideas, an issue that is anything but unproblematic for the intellectual and publishing class.
The social sites of media art practice, located somewhere in the twilight zone between gallery, Net, street, private homes and festival venues, remain precarious and often contradictory, maybe because, more so than modernist art forms, current media art engages with the contradictions not only of its own practice, but also with the contradictions of its social environment. In this context it is interesting to note the direct and indirect references that are being made to historical precedents, which are, on the one hand, the anti-art attitude of Dada and Situationism, and on the other hand the hybrid strategies of Futurism and Constructivism that mainly sought to undermine the autonomous position of art.
A fundamental question for the evaluation of media art remains that of the significance that is ascribed to the technological dispositive, a question which arises regarding the use of programming languages as well as in the face of large installation works such as those of Knowbotic Research who require large, powerful computers and yet maintain a critical and reflective attitude towards the ideological or epistemological potential of technology. In this context, Knowbotic Research have formulated "a plea for the establishment and preservation of unspecific fields of experimentation, discourse and critique, which are aimed at initialising and reworking uninhibited processes which can be fed back into other systems. The transdisciplinarities that emerge, the hybrid zones between theory and practice, performative fields etc., have always been projects supported by apparatuses. It is not the use of technologies, esp. of 'high-end computers', that makes them mutate into ethically and socially problematic events. This is where the arguments of the techno-critics fail, whether they attach to themselves the prefix 'art', 'culture', or 'social'. The critical and conceptual energies which the new technologies can spark should not be cemented in separatist (aesthetic and ethical) theories, but should be allowed to unfold in an uninhibited approach of all those active in the field, whether as theorists, articts or critics."
Aggregates of power
The critique to which KR allude here is based on a fundamental questioning of all art that uses high-technological means. It argues that this practice always already plays into the hands of an industrial-technological dispositive which can only be approached critically from the outside. An aestheticisation of technological functionality and its deployment in artistic contexts is claimed to be neither ethically nor politically acceptable.
This type of criticism has been widely rejected as insufficient and as unproductive. It is doubtlessly important to question media artistic practice as to how it deals with the social and political power that is aggregated in the apparatuses it uses. In this sense media must indeed be understood as aggregates of power, as complex assemblages of bodies - electronic hardware, production cycles, networks, humans, etc. - which together form larger, productive and powerful machines. 'Technology' is a bearer of social power on the level of industrial production as well as with regard to communication structures and discursive formations, and a critical media art which makes use of high-technological means will have to deal with these strata of meaning. However, to refute any bio- or otherwise technological experiment off-hand and to insist that one can only deal with these contemporary phenomena with a negating attitude, seems to be an indirect acceptance of defeat. Rather, this critique must accept that the boundaries between art, technology, industry and society are not that clear and obvious, but they form fractal infoldings, "a never-ending differentiation of being along folds which continuously merge into one another." (Lévy, p.102)
The 'tactical media' referred to earlier show that the dimension of power can also be understood in a productive sense and employed where, rather than affirming homogenising, molarising structures, a critical artistic practice deals with the inherent forces of technology. A good example for such a practice is the 'breeding' of Techno-Parasites, an initiative of the Berlin-based artist Erik Hobijn who had thought a lot about lack of attention for, and the precarious invisibility of, many of the technical aspects of our everyday environment. Classical examples of this are the system of street lamps or the electricity network - who would give as much thought to a plug in the wall or to a lamp as we do, for instance, to computer modems? The self-evidence of the former is not only due to the fact that they have been around much longer, but also because they work much better and more reliably. The Techno-Parasites attack precisely at this point where there is a lack of alertness and become parasitic on these apparatuses which have become invisible and which the Tps use, disrupt and ultimately destroy in order to procreate and to make themselves larger, stronger, and ever more beautiful. This type of artistic practice will not let itself be paralysed or entangled into discursive correctness, but tries to turn the forces of the technological dispositive in on itself. The apparent ethical ambivalence becomes a necessity where no power centre, no enemy system and no 'correct' political practice can be identified. With reference to Manuel de Landa's analysis of the machinic phylum, Thomas Brandstetter has recently remarked that "today the power structures may themselves have become nomadic and rhizomatic." For artistic practices this must imply not to adapt to the technical and stylistic conditions of technology, but to consciously read their power aggregations and to employ their forces against the grain. The most interesting works in this context are directed at allowing for an experience of the machinic, at the corporeality and the physical perceptability of the processes through which the technical and human apparatuses are linked together.
The commercial and semi-commercial, scientific research and development institutes like to talk about the need for the development of intuitive interfaces between human and machine, between physical and virtual reality. Their work aims at the 'smooth' linking of real and virtual actors. Instead of such intuitive interfaces we should work towards developing counter-intuitive interfaces, interface which make the differences between the clashing systems visible and open them up to human experience. As Hobijn puts it: "The message should not be: don't feel the pace-maker, but: feel the pace-maker!" The task of artistic practice should not be to smooth over the breaks, but to highlight the cracks and breaks, which allows for the unbounded unfolding of multiplicities, a practice which works towards what Félix Guattari has called 'Heterogenesis', "i.e. a permanent process of re-singularisation. The individuals have at the same time to become ever more solidary and ever more different. - The multiple practices should not only not be homogenised and interconnected through some kind of transcendental guardianship, but they should sensibly be led into a process of the generation of dissimilarity." (Guattari 1994, p.76, 49)
The strategically important points of intervention for this lie in the concrete, in the corporeal, in the local, while the black holes of the heterotopias, the virtual and the transterritorial contain the points of effective and passionate subjectification. Radical virtualisation makes art ineffective, while the tension of the 'and', topos/heterotopos, identity/non-identity, virtuality/actuality, re-/de-/territorialisation force the flows into new turbulences.
Strategies of heterogenisation can make use of the method of 'granulation' of their material, i.e. the separation into singular elements and fragments which together form the multiple 'felt' of the artistic material, and which can also be isolated as individual elements carrying meaning. The concept of granulation is based on the potential of transformation offered by digitisation: each digital 'granulate', each byte can, in a multiplicity of different contexts, be transposed from its state of potentiality into a state of actuality. Margarete Jahrmann uses this concept when she talks about a multiplicity of small-scale servers which, given their flexibility and the generative potential that lies between them, can lead to very interesting synergetic processes. In their latest project, Anonymous Muttering (1996), Knowbotic Research analyse more directly the effects of granulation. Sound material from different DJ events is fed in real-time into an operational loop, where this material is digitally granulated. Individual users in special, local zones in public urban spaces, users on the Internet, and the networked computer set-up can, with their respective interfaces (a bendable silicon membrane; a shockwave interface on the WWW; random algorithms) manipulate and transform the output of the granulated material. The output can be experienced in special light and sound stations in the urban space as well as via the Internet (RealAudio), while it becomes impossible to distinguish the interventions of any one of the operators. Granulation here means not only the digital separation of sound material in order to activate its multiple accoustic and visual transformational potentials, but also the dissolution of individual acts into a meta-individual process of agency. This kind of collective work which does not distinguish between interventions by apparatuses and human agency, points towards a machinic aesthetics which is not primarily concerned with leaving behind authorial traces, but which seeks to explore the machinic principles of aesthetic production.
Machine aesthetics - aesthetics of the machinic
The fascination with the machinic and its artistic elaboration in the late-20th century can easily be traced back, as Mark Dery has recently shown once more, to historical predecessors from the 17th and 18th centuries. Even then it was the potential autonomy of the machinic being created by human engineers, which made the strongest, if not sublime impression on the beholder. Modern computer technology pushes this phenomenon a bit further by executing processes which are virtually incomprehensible both due to their speed and their complexity. Irritation is also caused by the fact that, as Friedrich Kittler has remarked, the 'Net' does not really consist of humans communicating via computers, but that it is made up of computers which communicate with computers: machines which are permanently online and which end each other data packages, optimise processes, whether humans are involved or not.
The aesthetics of the machinic which is currently taking shape is, however, not only based on the aesthetic qualities of the more or less independent agency of machines, understood as technical hardware. Machines can also be understood in another, more conceptual sense as apparatuses which aggregate and transform forces. Guattari and Deleuze have dealt with this concept extensively with regard to the 'desiring machines' which participate in the formation of psychic dispositives, yet, they have also pointed out that the notion of the machinic can be understood in a much wider sense.
"A machine organises the topology of different flows and draws the meanders of the rhizomatic switches. It is a kind of attractor that bends the world around itself. [...] In the first instance a machine can be understood as belonging to a physical, biological, social, technical, semiotic, psychic, etc., stratum, but in a more general way it transgresses the strata in a heterogeneous and cosmopolitain way. A machine does not only produce something in the world, but it also contributes to producing, reproducing and transforming the world in which it functions. A machine is a disposing disposition, it tends to turn back, to return to its own conditions of existence, in order to reproduce them." (Lévy, p.106-7)
These machines realise and transform potentialities and thus circumscribe the points at which the vectors of heterogenisation can multiply - or be reterritorialised into petrifying, molar formations. Machines are not dead objects, but they always have a proto-subjective stratum and a tendency towards teleology and thus towards reflexivity, which ties them immediately to processes of subjectification (cf Guattari 1995, Lévy 1995, and Sengers 1996).
Dealing with the aesthetics of the machinic, then, means to shift from the level of fascination with technical hardware to the level of movements, of processes, of dynamics, of change. The power and the beauty of the knowbots, as they are for instance deployed by KR+cF, are no longer judged according to their function as bearers of a specific technological culture or logic, but looks at their behaviour and at their ability to intervene into transformative processes. This interpretation does not mean an uncritical embrace of the machinic as an aesthetic principle. Rather, dealing with the machinic in this way confronts its ambivalence and works towards making visible its territorial orders, dispersing and transforming them.
It might in fact be possible that the question of power can really only be posed productively with regard to such machinic formations. Foucault made the successful attempt at describing power as a constructive force, and at showing that subjectification is not the opposite, but a product of dispositives of power. We probably need to further elaborate this thinking in order to become able to develop an analysis of the functioning of power in non-linear environments. What would it mean to learn to describe power as a line of force in the machinic phylum, as a multiple line of force passing through a socio-technical aggregate? And what would a critique of specific aggregates look like that does not focus on particular sensitive themes, facts or products, but on these machinc lines of force? If this is a useful model for thinking about medialised power, it might also make it possible to develop from it an analysis of the tactical deployment of knowbots and other machinic agents.
A war machine about which we care ...
The approach towards a critical media aesthetics presented here remains speculative. It refers to an ongoing process for whose observation these considerations may help to develop further tools. There remain open questions which will in part be tackled on an artistic level, and which will in part require further theoretical and interdisciplinary analyses. A question that arises from Guattari and Deleuze's analysis of semiotic regimes is, which types of granulates are most appropriate for different strategies of transgression and dispersion: whether these should remain to be monadic carriers of meanings belonging to 'significant' or 'post-significant' semiotic units; or whether their granulation should go so far that the material is brought back to pre-significant particles which are brought into new stratifications by diagrammatic, abstract machines. The question follows, in how far the contemporary medial environments with their political, technological and aesthetic determinants might actually 'always already' form machinic dispositions which are closer to the ambivalence of the war machine (more about this term in a moment) than to the deterritorialising tendency of abstract machines.
The inquiry into the pragmatics of the machinic suggested here also points us at another area which deserves more attention, i.e. that of subjectification. The challenge might lie in the attempt to develop the concept of the war machine in a way that elucidates it as a practical model for an aesthetics of the machinic, without taking away the moral irritation that it causes. The war machine as Guattari and Deleuze describe it in Mille Plateaux only turns into the fascist institution whose aim is total war, when it is appropriated by the molar order of the state. Viewed in a historical perspective, the war machine is of nomadic origin and strives for deterritorialisation and a permanent mutation of flows. "Its aim is not war," as Guattari and Deleuze write, "but grooving a creative line of escape, the formation of a flat, smooth space and the movement of people in this space. [...] War can indeed coincide with this machine, but only as a synthetic and supplementary aim which is directed against the state and the global axiomatics which the states express." (p.584)
The nomadic groups, movements and minorities who appropriate the war machine in this manner, "can conduct war only under the condition, that they build and create something else at the same time" (ibid.): a vector that is directed at the dissolution of fixed subjectivities and that seaks to bring forth what Deleuze has called 'pre-individual singularities' and 'non-personal individuations'. Strategies of delaying, of slowing down and of diverting have to make it possible to conceive subjectification as a transitory rather than as a teleological process Subjectification as temporally determined and as an irreversible process of becoming, of transition and of singularisation: herein the ethical dimension of the aesthetics of heteronenesis seems to crystallise. For artistic practice, the adaptation of the model of the war machine can mean that, in order to enhance the transversal tendencies, insecurities have to be triggered, anti-production has to be initiated and parasitic behaviour has to be developed as a series of inversive strategies: infoldings at the boundaries.
"Interface machines and parasites come to take care of the gaps and abysses or deep folds which separate the worlds of subjectivity, their temporality, their spaces and their signs. A machine preserves the event of the fold from which it emerges (by betraying it at the same time). It inscribes the initial clinamen into the mechanosphere, makes it continue, re-emerge, and by doing this it becomes the source of new folds." (Lévy, p.110)
These folds can be made productive wherever they imply a moment of transgression and where the synergy (or the separation) of human and machine, or the identity (or non-identity) of cognition and computation is not affirmed but treated as an unstable boundary, as a fold which one can always only slip out of and which knows no inside, no secure territory.
Bibliography and hypertext-references:
Thomas Brandstetter: [the power structure itself may be rhizomatic].
Rhizome Digest, 30. Juli 1996 <http://www.rhizome.com>
Gilles Deleuze: "A Philosophical Concept." In: J.L. Nancy (ed): Who Comes after the Subject? New York, London: Routledge, 1991
Gilles Deleuze, Félix Guattari: Tausend Plateaus. (1980) Berlin: Merve, 1992
Mark Dery: Escape Velocity. Cyberculture at the End of the Century. New York: Groove Press, 1996
Brigitte Felderer (ed): Wunschmaschine Welterfahrung. Eine Geschichte der Technikvisionen seit dem 18. Jahrhundert. Wien, New York: Springer, 1996
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Nonlocated Online, (also available on the www at: http://www.t0.or.at/~krcf/nlonline/
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