What exactly is media art today? Is it a part of art or apart from art? If it is a part of art, some will say, where are its masterpieces, what is its market share? If it is apart from art where intellectually and culturally is it located? Can media art now be anything but interactive? In cyberspace, can the viewer now be anything less than actively involved in the creation of meaning and the fulfillment of personal experience? Is the computer just a new kind of tool, and the Net just anew kind of medium? Or are we becoming immersed in a wholly new environment, eliciting new behaviors, new relationships and new ambitions, perhaps with profound ontological implications? Certainly our systems of perception and cognition are changing. We see further and deeper, into space and into matter. We think more associatively, communicate more quickly, remember more extensively. Consciousness itself may be re-framed. Artificial life, biotechnology and complexity, which have most recently attracted the creative mind, make manifest the principles of emergence and the virtue of bottom up construction. How are these principles to be applied imaginatively to art?
Interactive media, immaterial or re-materialised, however conceived and however implemented, support an art which is essentially transformative. In the flux of the Net and the ambiguities of cyberspace, our own identity and sense of self are challenged, as are many of the previous assumptions about the nature of art, the nature of meaning and the nature of Nature itself. In this paper, which I am honoured to give as the keynote to MASS’98, I shall attempt to sketch out the parameters of this new, emerging field of art, highlighting its divergence from previous practices, indicating its affinities to past cultures, and pointing to future ambitions.
Art is the search for new language, for new ways of constructing reality and for the means of re-defining ourselves. It is language embodied in forms and behaviors, texts and structures. It is language involving all the senses when it is embodied in digital media, in computer-mediated systems and structures. Digital media are transformative media; digital systems are the agencies of change. The computer is essentially a dynamic environment, which involves artificial and human intelligence in non-linear processes of emergence, construction and transformation.
Through the languages it creates, art serves to reframe consciousness, to engender new behaviours, to re-invent the world. Art can only be evaluated and defined by the new language it produces. For the artist simply to reiterate and maintain received and established language, uncreatively and uncritically, is to renounce the idea that we can rethink ourselves and our world, and to accede to the notion that in matters of reality our minds are made up for us.
In Richard Rorty’s words: „To create one’s mind is to create one’s own language, rather than to let the length of one’s mind be set by language other human beings have left behind“ (Contingency, irony and solidarity, Cambridge University Press, 1989). Rorty is a thinker who challenges the very category in which the world would place him. As one of the West’s most celebrated philosophers, he eschews the designation of ‚philosophy‘ in favour of ‚fiction‘, seeing that it is the artist’s utopian impulse and fecundity of metaphor that leads to the creation of reality, thereby denying the passive acceptance of any canonical description.
Similarly, many media artists today seek to escape the constraints of artistic identity in order to stray freely in the speculative zones of science and technology, mysticism and philosophy. Categories of this kind, whether of ‚philosopher‘, ’scientist‘ or ‚artist‘ simply contain and constrain knowledge and action, often as not used expediently or cynically in order to secure the appearance of truth. Truth at any cost – an illusion of course. Breaking free of categories, intellectually and emotionally, and constructing new realities, new language, new practices is what art is seeking to achieve.
It was Nietzsche who first explicitly suggested we drop the whole idea of ‚knowing the truth‘. His definition of truth as a „mobile army of metaphors“ amounted to saying that the whole idea of ‚representing reality“ by means of language, and thus the idea of finding a single context for all human lives, should be abandoned. Such thoughts help describe the context in which the more significant (i.e. non-ornamental) digital art can be produced. There are many takes on reality, many ways of finding their expression. But where hitherto art has been the servant of such expression, it is now more engaged in the process of creating reality, of constructing worlds, and in a sense legitimising all our own alternative realities. In this way art is an agency of Becoming… a constructive, more than expressive or decorative, process. The artist is ready to call upon any system, organic or technological, which enables that process to develop. For the same reason he must be prepared to look anywhere, into any discipline, scientific or spiritual, any view of the world, however banal or arcane, any culture, immediate or distant, in order to find those processes which engender this becoming. In my own work for example, cybernetics and shamanism, can happily co-exist in this multidimensional domain of knowledge and its associative structures.
And in this process, a community of minds, particularly when they are telematically interactive, can richly compliment the intensity of thought that a solitary practice and research provides. It is community, of course, which creates values, and the ethics of cyberspace are only just beginning to be formulated. Still greater and perhaps more urgent is the need to establish the moral landscape in which advanced technology and higher states of consciousness, or machines and mysticism if you will, can co-exist and, more poignantly, co-evolve. There are enormous dangers here. The movement Aum, in Japan, is just one example of the morally corrupt and ethically perverse forms of so-called ’spiritual transcendence‘ that new technology can engender. Across the world, the Web serves many other unbalanced and inverted groups. But just as there is corruption through a kind of techno-spiritual excess, so also there can be a kind of po-faced protestantism which seeks to inhibit creative vision and optimism.
In this respect, cyberspace is sometimes been treated as a ideological black hole into which the professional frustrations and innate pessimism of would-be theorists and pop sociologists can be poured. This is the „endless labour of negation“ which characterises so much that passes for theory in the field of cyberculture and the digital arts. This is not to say that there is no place for critical theory in the evolving discourse but it must embody constructive proposals for future practice lest it remain in the academic domain of sterile caution. A wagging finger is no substitute for constructive (or connective) criticism and intellectual probity. Certainly, it is for the artist to show both moral and creative ascendancy over these negative tendencies, to make of art a wholly ethical synthesis of mind and matter, particularly when this concerns transcendent mind and technological matter. I believe that we can do so, and that an important challenge of the coming decades will be precisely to invest the evolving post-biological, technoetic culture with a truly human system of values. This calls for a general disposition of optimism, what I have described as „telenoia“ (the celebration of connectivity and open-ended collaboration) to replace the „paranoia“, the anxiety, the alienation and negativity of the old industrial age.
Such ambition redefines the work of the artist and gives it also relevance in the political context. It replaces the historical sense of the artist’s role as an „honourable calling“ with the idea of such work as a „transformative vocation“ – a concept which is central to the theory of society of Roberto Unger, the Brazilian thinker and Harvard Professor of Law. His programme for social reconstruction constitutes a radical alternative to Marxism on the one hand and „social democracy“ on the other. He shows how, against the idea of work as purely instrumental or as an honourable calling, a third idea of work has appeared in the world. „It connects self-fulfillment and transformation: the change of any aspect of the practical or imaginative settings of the individual’s life. To be fully a person, in this conception, you must engage in a struggle against the defects of the limits of existing society or available knowledge“. (Politics: the Central Texts, Theory against Fate. London: Verso. 1997).
Moreover, he shows the need for the „diffusion to ever broader numbers of people of an idea of work once restricted to a tiny number of leaders, artists, and thinkers and not always and everywhere shared even by them. In this view of work, true satisfaction can be found only in an activity that enables people to fight back, individually or collectively, against the established settings of their lives – to resist these settings and remake them. The dominant institutional and imaginative structure of a society represents a major part of this constraining biographical circumstance, and it must therefore also be a central target of transformative resistance“.
The value of interactive and telematic media in this context is immediately apparent, since the widespread diffusion of ideas and the enrichment of individual and collective work are the defining attributes of such media. And it is in art practice that these attributes have been most imaginatively explored and where new models of communication, construction and, indeed, resistance have been most subtly modelled. Here both the concept of emergence and the principle of uncertainty must be evoked since the processes involved are neither prescriptive nor deterministic – all is open-ended, incomplete and contingent, awaiting always the intervention and constructive collaboration of the viewer.
Similarly contingent is the way that images, words, and structures come „into the mind“ – somehow and from somewhere, the process of emergent thought being as mysterious to the artist as it is inexplicable to scientists. Consciousness is the great mysterium, the challenge, at the artistic and intellectual frontier of our time. It is the dilemma of modern science that no effective explanation of consciousness has been found. The artist and scientist are both faced with the same insistent questions. What is mind? Where is consciousness located? Is it to be found within the brain or is the brain immersed in it, as it were within a field? Are there varieties of consciousness, levels which can be transcended? Can conscious experience be shared? What might the nature of artificial consciousness be?
These issues of mind/body, spirit/matter, concept/form are tied up with questions of identity, of self-definition, of what it is to be human. Do we possess creativity or does creativity possess us? Should the artist firmly claim the meaning of his work or is its semiosis invested in the viewer. Is not art, like knowledge itself, always on the edge of instability, oscillating between certitude and indeterminacy, just as the quantum world seems to be? Since the meaning of an artwork is a product of the viewer’s negotiation, is the artist responsible for its content or is his role to provide contexts from which meaning can arise?
In the brief history of interactive art, the participation of the viewer has remained, by definition, essential: but increasingly works of interactive art have become non-finite, with no ultimate resolution. It is more a matter of open-ended process than finite product. What has changed significantly is the disposition of the viewers. They are no longer simply interactive but pro-active. Their relationship to the „artwork/network“ is prospective rather than receptive. Their perception has become cyberception. Each individual identity is unstable. It may be multiple, distributed or collective. Identity in cyberspace is variable and complex, always transformable. It derives from a network of minds, rather than the autonomous, solitary mind. It entails a flowing interpenetrating of formerly discrete cognitive systems. It is all about transformation. That is why cyberspace is so appealing. Cyberspace is the very stuff of transformation; it embodies being-in-flux, constituting a kind of artificial becoming. But its primary importance is that it stimulates changes in ourselves, transforming aspects of mind and behaviour, bringing forth cyberception, teleprescience, altering the ratio of the senses.
I see 20th century art’s investigation into Being and Becoming, or to use Chris Langton’s phrase „life-as-it-could-be“, mirrored in its preference for process over product, behaviour over form, valuing concepts in their own right, even to the exclusion of direct visual representations of the external world. This artistic provenance of conceptual and constructive process exerts a huge influence on the strategies that we artists adopt today. Similarly, there is a compelling strand in Western art of the spiritual and visionary, of works attempting to transcend their materiality to other planes of experience and awareness. (We need only think of Blake, Boccioni, and Kandinsky for example). One can foresee an art emerging, which looks closely at the models of mind that science is providing, while exploring those technologies, which enable the reframing of consciousness, to develop the faculty of ‚cyberception‘, and to assist in the creation of self-aware systems. Indeed, I foresee a truly technoetic art as the defining cultural paradigm of the new century. At the same time, I want an art that is progressively less preoccupied with the immaterial and screen-based world and moves towards a re-materialisation of art that can incorporate artificial life, artificial consciousness and a kind of hybrid, ‚moist‘ biology. Set within the net, this is to foresee a bio-telematic emergence.
I want our paranormal and paranatural powers to be re-instated and integrated into the repertoire of human action. In this respect we have so much to learn from distant cultures, distant in space and in time. „Distanced“ is the more appropriate term. I found the time I spent deep in the Amazonian jungle as a guest of the Kuikuru people of immense importance to my understanding of the place of transformative technology and multimedia systems in the integration of the self with a larger field of consciousness. Their technology was plant technology (‚ayahuasca‘ – based on the vine Banisteriopsis caapi) and their systems were ritualised, with an exuberant employment of all the sensory modes (image, sound, and dance). What I learned from their ancient culture, profoundly integrated into the complexity of the jungle, that is of particular significance to us, immersed in the cyberworld, was the importance of enactment over performance. That „art“ for them, although performative, was essentially an enactment of multimedia intricacy designed to re-structure the psyche, indeed the whole psychic field, and not a performance that required or even implied an audience.
Everyone engaged was immersed in the psychic space; no one was separated out as an observer. By contrast, the progressive degeneration of interactive art can be foreseen if museums persist in presenting transformative work as if it were an object, or spectacle, in which the interactive viewer becomes part of an ensemble, or tableau, that the second observer can view, inactively, passively, at a distance. It simply perpetuates the old culture of hierarchical separation, which of course in turn, perpetuates the old social and political order. I learned much in the Amazon (and in Brazil more widely) both through the transformative power of the vine and through reflection on the fluidity of personal identity. I understood that our experience in cyberspace of double consciousness . being both in the body and out of body in telematic space (and moving easily between these states) simply mirrored what the shaman has done for thousands of years, with the effect of the vine, moving between worlds, shape-shifting, and inhabiting multiple bodies. My experience of the ayahuasca was enormously enriched by the thesis of Jeremy Narby, published in English translation as The Cosmic Serpent, DNA and the Origins of Knowledge, (London: Victor Gollancz, 1998). Bringing together aspects of molecular biology, shamanism, neurology and ancient mythology, he substantiates the Indians‘ claims that to a consciousness prepared with the vine, specific biochemical knowledge can be transmitted – through DNA itself. He suggests that DNA and the life it codes for at the cellular level are ‚minded‘ – an aspect of Mind. DNA communication within individuals, between individuals and, indeed between species, is central to this thesis of transformation.
To me also, as to my colleagues whose practices are invested in networked hypermedia and virtual reality, and populated with artificial agents and avatars, it is clear that identity can be endlessly transformed. The immutability and unity of the self, so dearly prized in the European tradition, is giving way to an understanding of how we each can be involved in our own self-creation.
The impact of science on our thinking (especially its metaphors and models), on our readings of the world and the limitations and potential of human beings, has been no less considerable than the impact of the conceptual and constructive forces of 20th century art. Complexity, quantum physics, the cognitive sciences, and new biology, for example, provide fresh perspectives on being and becoming. Advanced technology provides opportunities for the exploration of mind and the extension of the body that challenge many preconceptions we have held about our „innate“ nature and the limitations of space and time. We need only look at the effects of connectivity and interaction, to see how rapidly new technologies are enabling people, places and ideas to come together in entirely new configurations and conjunctions.
Let me, by way of summing up; return to my opening questions. Media art today cannot properly be defined since it is in a process of rapid evolution. To be precise, it is inherently unstable, incomplete and open ended . and necessarily and aesthetically so. Moreover it is migrating from its silicon substrate towards the ‚moist‘ domain of a post-biological culture. It is perhaps a part of art, in the sense that it continues to share to some extent in the institutions and ordinances of artistic culture; but in its close affinity to science and technology, it is much more concerned with process and system (forms of behaviour) than with objects and structures (the behaviour of forms.). In fact a wholly new field of practice is emerging in which the designated compartmentalisation of ‚art‘, ’science‘ and ‚technology‘ is losing relevance, in favour of a widespread connectivity across all kinds of intellectual, cultural, esoteric and political domains. Common to these domains is the question of consciousness and ‚technologies‘ through which it might be investigated, reframed and perhaps understood. There are no masterpieces, unless emergence, interaction, and transformation are to be the cardinal criteria of selection. If there will be a share in the overstocked and overreaching art market, it will accrue from conceptual rather than commodity values. In cyberspace, the viewer cannot be anything less than actively involved in the creation of meaning and the fulfillment of personal experience.
Emphatically, the computer is not just a new kind of tool, and the Net is not just a new kind of medium: we are instead wholly immersed in a radically new environment, which is eliciting new behaviors, new relationships and new consciousness. It is an environment in which we must open up wormholes to other, older cultures and reach for other, older technologies. Technoetics, the technology of cognition and consciousness, will not be limited to computer hardware and software, however integrated into the human brain that may become. Biochemical knowledge, ‚moist‘ technology and a dynamic Alife will constitute an important part of our post-biological culture. As we move into the new millennium, these are the issues that will dominate; these are questions which new media practice must address. The ontological implications are indeed profound. It’s not just that we are now not what we once were (or thought we had to be) but that we do not yet know what it is that we can become or truly wish to be.