closed circuit

Jacqueline Millner reports on Digital Aesthetics-One

Digital Aesthetics-One was held at the University of New South Wales in April 1996. The symposium was convened by Contemporary Art and Technology (CAT), an independent Melbourne-based group “dedicated to the promotion of critical inquiry and debate of issues surrounding the shift from analog to digital paradigms”.

If there’s one thing that the cyber-conference circuit can agree on, it’s the urgent need for a critical theory adequate to our new media landscape. If there’s one thing such conferences appear to consistently fall short of, it’s the substantial progression of such a theory. For while speaker after speaker at Digital Aesthetics-One identified the problem, vehemently put by Paul Virilio as the lack of a theory for technological art, few proposed any fleshed-out strategies for tackling it. Moreover, for all the palaver about the fluidity and openness of cyberdebate, the sense of closed circuit was underlined by the continual reappearance of familiar names, familiar arguments, none more in-your-face than Professor Allucquere Rosanne Stone, “performing” the precise same anecdotal musings on liquid identity for the umpteenth time in Australia (the last only nine months ago at the Biennale of Ideas), musings which in any case you can read pretty much word for word in her latest book.

While suffering from some dilemmas common to similar symposia, Digital Aesthetics-One was also saddled with the particular and difficult task of addressing its title. Peter Chamberlain from the University of Hawaii asked at the wrap-up panel, “Did anyone really talk about digital aesthetics?…there ain’t no digital aesthetics, it’s just too complex”, and certainly few speakers actually addressed the notion of aesthetics as such or the impact which digital technologies have had on traditional aesthetics. And this despite a brave attempt by conference organisers CAT to represent both theorists and artists in equal measure at the symposium, let alone in the series of surrounding events including performances at Artspace and an exhibition at the Ivan Dougherty Gallery.

Regardless of these general problems, there were some star turns, the brilliant presentation by American cultural theorist Mark Dery, the indisputable highlight. With a masterful turn of phrase and a relentless stream of pithy and hilarious metaphors, Dery through his language alone was able to evoke a sense of a digital aesthetics, and at the same time further a salient critique of the politics of the new media. Beginning with a colourful description of Wired—”the mighty morphin’ power book with the sheen of a turtlewaxed Formula One roadster”, its day-glo fused photographs like an “irradiated monitor turned up too high”—Dery went on to surgically dissect the magazine’s design and its ideological implications, seducing us first into believing in Wired’s avant-gardism before convincingly undermining this status in the next breath.

For while Wired positions itself at the forefront of a push to crack the US military-industrial-entertainment complex through the democratising gestures of netsurfing and hacking (a “let them eat laptops” mentality), what it really does is provide a safe vehicle for the Silicon Valley establishment to live out its fantasy of rebellion. Wired’s design, steeped in the Uriah Heep iconography of the early 70s, works to affirm the hipness of the magazine’s core demographic (average income $US 81,000 a year, male, white and employed in the communications industry); facilitates the transition of the flat-footed IBM nerd to latter day uberlord prowling the net after hours (in other words, an affirmation that “corporations are cool”); and perpetrates a kind of “info-machismo” whereby one’s worth is judged by the ability to handle information overload (as in Johnny Mnemonic’s directive, “Hit me!”). Dery’s facility to range from popular culture to sociological texts to complex poststructuralist theory with wit, spontaneity and a concern to be understood, made for a most entertaining and edifying session.

Another pertinent contribution was Jane Goodall’s critical consideration of the aesthetic credentials of the digital. Contextualising her analysis in the history of digital programming, with its desire to obliterate human agency, and the late 19th century synaesthetic movement, with its sensorial theatre, Goodall elegantly argued that digital art remains sensorially challenged. For Goodall, “there are more interesting questions to be raised about the limits of digital art than its imagined megalopotentialities…[and] the most significant limitation is the restricted possibilities for sensory engagement. Multimedia is not synaesthetic—it’s bound to an audiovisual axis, and the literally digital aspect of it—fingertip communication by the user—offers a hopelessly reductive approach to accommodating the sense of touch”. Describing her visit to the CD-ROM exhibition Burning the Interface, Goodall observes, “There’s something very unsensory about this activity or interactivity, as you stand there watching it, waiting for a turn with the mouse. And the art, far from liquefying and going global and dissolving and cancelling the social field, is all boxed in its monitors”. Ultimately for Goodall, the only way to create a digital aesthetics—with the emphasis on aesthetics as perception by the senses—is to combine digital media with live performance, as Stelarc and Orlan do.

Stelarc and Orlan certainly came away as the anointed royalty of digital aesthetics from this symposium. Not only Goodall, but other speakers including Nicholas Zurbrugg—whose keynote address was a good opener, its ambit so wide that it prefaced many of the ensuing issues, its emphasis on the traditional genealogy of digital art salutary—found few better exemplars of what the future might look like. Orlan’s agent/publicist/theoretician, former paediatrician Dr Rachel Armstrong, however, added very little to the debate, stringing together a swag of clichés to say nothing more than that Orlan confounds the institutions of art and medicine and evades the strictures of identity by using her body as a canvas. The bodgie ‘live’ link up to Orlan in Paris—which consisted not of video or even net conferencing but simply a trunk call—was only outdone by Dr Armstrong’s tortuous French which frustrated the audience’s attempts to elicit nuanced answers from “the world’s first practitioner of carnal art”.

Stelarc’s contribution was far more substantial. Dismissive of the “outmoded metaphysical yearnings” of some net surfers for a “mind to mind communion”, and disowning the notorious World Art interview in which he asserted the obsolescence of the body (“this does not imply a body loathing, nor the desire for a utopian body that achieves immortality”), Stelarc went on to outline his latest project: the generation of a “fractal flesh” by performing the body stirred and startled by the remote whispers of other bodies—displaced presences on the net—prompting the body to perform actions without previous memory or desire. This loop of stimulus and response becomes for Stelarc a metaphor for awareness, which in the artist’s schema is due to gross and small muscle movements.

The symposium also invited a number of emerging local new media artists to discuss their work, among them Patricia Piccinini and James Verdon whose latest digital art was concurrently exhibited at The Performance Space and Ivan Dougherty Gallery respectively. Also on show at the latter was British artist Graham Harwood’s Rehearsal of Memory, a poignant CD-ROM record of the personal scars and histories of inmates from a high security mental hospital. There is a raw energy about Graham Harwood and his community-oriented projects which is exhilarating, particularly in a cultural climate still hostile to artwork which wears its political heart on its sleeve. Harwood admits that he’s never been interested in technology so much as where technology acts on people. Like Dery, Harwood drags the cyberdebate back to where it counts, to the realm of the social, contextualising his work by reminding us that “while one third of the national income of the UK is generated by culture, there is no cultural voice for people below a certain level of income”.

Considering its lack of heavyweight institutional support—no credits to the Australia Council, nor for that matter the AFC which ran a rather more lavish event across town at the same time—Digital Aesthetics-One did well to attract some leading new media players. Certainly CAT’s attempt to pull together artists, designers and theorists was laudable, even if a more compact program might have separated the chaff from the wheat. However, coming away from the symposium only underlines the still urgent need for cogent theoretical approaches to the new media.

RealTime issue #13 June-July 1996 pg. 22

© Jacqueline Millner; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 June 1996