A code in search of a process

Ned Rossiter

Peter Weibel, Panoptic Society 2001
interactive DVD-ROM, ZKM & Interactive Cinema Research, UNSW

Peter Weibel, Panoptic Society 2001
interactive DVD-ROM, ZKM & Interactive Cinema Research, UNSW

Over the past few years, one is increasingly able to detect the emergence of empirical approaches to the study of new media as the current dominant paradigm. The empirical desire to fix all that is virtual into concrete is coextensive with a certain weariness or distrust of the excesses of ‘postmodern theory’ that came to characterise much work in media and cultural studies and contemporary art during the 80s and 90s. Work carried out in sociology, international relations, and architecture has also taken this empirical turn.

These fields all share a desire to ground their objects of study, to retrieve them from the ravages of speculative ‘theory’ and, in doing so, perhaps begin a process of reconstructing disciplinary identities. Arguably, all of this coincides with the perceived displacement of national and local communities wrought by communications media such as satellite TV, the internet, and the mobile phone. Very real displacement across social scales accompanies the structural transformations of national and regional economies in a post-Soviet era in which populations have become increasingly mobile at transnational levels as professional or unskilled labour, as refugees, or as tourists.

It is the task of empirical studies to describe and analyse these various transformations, yet to delimit such work to the scholastic mode of production is to overlook the ways in which such research corroborates the interests of capital which, in the corporatisation of universities, finds the current empirical paradigm as the new frontier of rationalisation. Researchers, or information workers, in many instances are providing data analysis that has commercial applications in ascertaining consumer habits and, in the case of new media studies, there is the attempt to foreclose the myriad ways in which users engage with media forms and content. It’s all quite desperate. And it’s all related to a quest to capture markets.

What, you may ask, has any of this got to do with (dis)LOCATIONS, a conference on new media, aesthetics and culture? Well, quite a bit I reckon. To dislocate something is to put it out of joint, but this movement corresponds with a relocation in some other place, space or form. Herein lies the commercial interest in new media. The speakers at (dis)LOCATIONS all conducted an empirics of new media in so far as they engaged in describing the various forms, objects, experiences and artworks that constitute new media. It was at the level of analysis, however, that my doubts crept in, for here I saw the key problem of an empirics of new media aesthetics: the failure, in a number of instances, to understand that the aesthetics of artworks, software applications and technologies are conditioned by social relations as well as the theoretical paradigms through which analysis proceeds.

Continuing his work on media archaeology and post-media or software theory found in The Language of New Media (2001), Lev Manovich (see interview) focused on a very particular idea about what constitutes the materiality of new media, and hence aesthetics. In excavating a history of the present for new media, Manovich’s work is important in that it maps out recent design applications, animation practices, and compositing techniques, for example, that operate in discrete or historically continuous modes. However, his approach assumes form as a given yet forgets the socio-political arrangements in which media forms are necessarily embedded in, and which imbue any visual (not to mention sonic) taxonomy or typology with a code: ie a language whose precondition is the possibility for meaning to be produced.

The aesthetic that constitutes a code is only possible through a process of articulation with modes of practice, of interpenetrative moments, of duration. The political dimension of aesthetics is manifest in the power relations that attend such processes, and in order to undertake an analysis of such assemblages, attention would need to be paid, as Manovich intimated, to the institutional settings of new media and their uses, be they in the office, at home, or in networked gaming arcades, for example.

The papers by Anna Munster and Darren Tofts provided exemplary instances of locating what I would call a processual aesthetics of new media. For Munster, this consisted of situating the internet within “an ecology of contagious information” of “glitches” and “relays” that constitutes net affects within “networked or distributed culture”. Her thesis on hate sites on the web was particularly fascinating in that it contested the doctrine of fluid identities that still characterises much theorisation of cyberculture. Munster gave an account of the way hate sites reproduce the institution of the family, with different members possessing generational literacies of hatred. At one level, the sites perform a pedagogical function for younger members of a family not inculcated into a culture of hatred against others. At another level, a literacy of design emerges as users distribute the symbolic codes and language of hate within a network of secrecy.

Tofts, more than any other speaker, displayed an acute sense of the presence of an audience within the conventions of a conference setting. This was no slap-dash paper, but a finely executed performance that extended the architectonics of a 45 minute paper segued with 6 tracks—Captain Beefheart, John Zorn, and the loony toons of Carl Stalling, among others—into the realm of the audience, creating a poetics of recombinatory, co-evolutionary aesthetics that are dis/integrated within “disjunctive media”. The filing card system used by Nabokov can be situated adjacent to Beckett’s “oxymoronic tension” and Pierre Boulez’s “multi-linear system” of (re)composing music; the “calculated discordance” of Beefheart with Zorn’s “block structures”, all relocating as lessons in not just a prehistory of digital media but a recombination of a media continuum, or what Tofts calls the “Zurbrugg effect”: that which mines “a trans-historical rather than epochal model of the avant-garde.” (See Obituary: Nicholas Zurbrugg, p12)

Roaming the stage with a clip-on mic, James Donald brought it all back home in the closing session, invoking Walter Benjamin on aesthetics as disorientating and the limits of the communicable as one experiences the kaleidoscopic affects of metropolitan life, conditioning the need for (new) media forms such as cinema in Benjamin’s time, or text messaging in ours. Finally we were reminded—and it was a pity other speakers weren’t around to hear this—that media as a technology is not determined by technical developments, but when technical possibilities coincide with other economic and social imperatives. Here was the much needed antidote to Chairman and CEO of ZKM Peter Weibel’s earlier satellite delivered paper which, quite bizarrely, maintained a transmission view of communication coupled with peculiar ideas on neuro-electrical perception as the basis for best understanding new media technologies. Weibel’s technically impaired audio delivery was further corrupted by the noise of old technology: a sliding semi-legible overhead transparency along with the jittery distractions of the Karlsruhe located camera operator.

As unfashionable as it may be, I do like a sense of closure to public fora. I find it handy if at least a few of the threads of a conference can be recombined, and I think such a practice presents a pleasant challenge to speakers. Instead, the final word left me (and I think others) with a sense of having been hijacked from a discussion that could have been, but did not happen. Ian Howard chaired the session and for one reason or another (probably the dictates of a last minute program amendment) decided to invite Jeffrey Shaw up as a respondent, but then proceeded to ask him to summarise some of the key intentions and aspects of his art practice and experiences as Director of the Visual Media Institute at ZKM. Given that he was in many respects the showpiece of the event, we’d heard and seen quite a bit from Shaw throughout the symposium, and even he looked rather indifferent about such a request. Here was a man on the brink of being relocated.

(dis)LOCATIONS, The Centre for Interactive Cinema Research at College of Fine Arts, University of New South Wales, in conjunction with Cinemedia /Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI), Melbourne and ZKM Centre for Art and Media, Karlsruhe, Germany; Cinemedia at Treasury Theatre, Melbourne, Nov 30-Dec 1 2001

RealTime issue #47 Feb-March 2002 pg. 22

© Ned Rossiter; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 February 2002
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