Copyright © Paul Brown 1998
This essay was commissioned by Experimenta Media Arts and first
appeared in the Games Theory issue 12 of their publication
MESH. More information is here.
All Rights Reserved
- Introduction: pushing the computer
- A historical perspective
- The response to the new
- An emergent culture
- On the foolishness of prediction
- Experimenta and MESH
This essay is based on a talk given at FOLDBACK,
presented by the Australian Network for Art and Technology as
part of the 1998 Telstra Adelaide Festival of the Arts, March 8
1998 at the Ngapartji Multimedia Centre in Adelaide and a keynote
address to the WWW7 Culture Track presented April 15 1998
at the Brisbane Convention Centre.
I first saw the World Wide Web in May 1993 when I was working at
the National Science Foundation's Centre for Computational Field
Simulation at Mississippi State University in the USA. Thanks to
our links with other NSF centres we got hold of a beta copy of
Mosaic, the Graphics User Interface (GUI) based browser being
developed by Mark Andreesen at the NSF's Centre for Supercomputer
I tried Mosaic out on a Sun Sparcstation with a one-bit (black
and white) video display. It was impressive and an exchange of
email with Andreesen confirmed that a Macintosh and PC version
was in the pipeline.
Then, as now, I was editor of fineArt forum (faf). Since its
foundation in 1987 faf had existed as a monthly email digest. In
1992, soon after taking over as editor, I established a gopher
site for the publication.
The web offered much more: inline images; point `n click
navigation; and more. I worked with a group of art students to
get fineArt forum on the web ready for the official launch of
Mosaic in January 1994. Back then there were only a few art's
publication on the web and faf went through quantum jump from
small circulation professional newsletter to a widely read arts
Now, four years down the track, I feel like I've left that behind
me. I have every respect for Tim Berners-Lee contribution to
late 20 century culture - the web is one of the great inventions
of this century - one of the most egalitarian publication medium
humanity has ever known.
However it's implementation in the form of Netscape or Internet
Explorer suffers all the problems of human computer interface
(HCI) design to date.
Not too long ago one of the great pioneers of HCI research and
design, Alan Kay (who had worked at Xerox on Smalltalk and the
Star) in his essay "User Interface - a Personal View" (KAY91)
said ... "you have to live with the consequences of your
Although postmodern dogma proclaims that metaphor is the only
tool a few of my readers will remember the 1960's will recall the
rallying call of ... "truth to the medium" and modernism.
A few of us still believe that there is an alternative to
metaphor although, in relation to the computational metamedium,
few if any of us would claim that we know precisely what it is.
As a modernist I believe it's a quality that's embedded in the
intrinsic nature of the medium itself and not in the metaphorical
disguises that we expediently create in order to make computers,
and the artworks we produce, more intuitive to learn and use.
Indeed we can perceive "user friendly" metaphor-loaded GUI's as
little more than a ploy for introducing others to our
computational addictions (POS92).
We have several historical models of the introduction of new
media that may help us to get a handle on the new computer-based
media and their significance.
When the photographic process was invented by Daguerre and Fox
Talbot professional image makers who "knew what they were doing"
like painters were invited to use the new camera technology. Not
surprisingly they cloaked their work with the metaphor of visual
art and used them to make pastiches of the monumental paintings
they would otherwise have painted. It was 40 years before
Margaret Cameron exhibited her naturalistic portraits and
everyone smacked their collective foreheads and recognised that
that's what photography really was about!
Later Edison and the Lumiere brothers invented the motion picture
camera and projector. From it's earliest days the medium was
framed by the metaphor of theatrical narrative, the proscenium
arch and the semiosis of the stage.
If was 40 years before the technology matured and the Soviet film
makers devised "Russian montage" and the language of
cinematography was codified for all to use. Feature films have
changed very little in their structure since those days. Sound,
colour and ever more extravagant SFX have added little to this
Recently I had the good fortune to see a restored print of
Capra's "Lost Horizons" made in 1937, just 12 years after Russian
montage was introduced. It's just as vibrant as anything made
this decade and in my opinion is in fact a significant
improvement on today's Hollywood formula fodder with it's
obsession with violence and gratuitous use of special effects.
Given the example of photography and film we shouldn't be too
surprised that metaphor has become so embedded in our development
of the human computer interface. History shows us that this is
precisely how human's first acknowledge and then contextualise
and accommodate a new medium or tool.
The examples of both photo and film show us that something new
emerges in the 40 year hiatus between invention of the technology
and the codification of a linguistic structure that is
appropriate to that technology.
This concept, of emergence, is very important and when we
return to the present and consider the world wide web (or CD-ROM
games or Virtual Reality, ....) it is important that we recognise
that the web is a symptom of that emergence and it isn't the
The reason isn't hard to find. The web, and other new media
technologies, have been created by people who's minds are
necessarily steeped in the media paradigm of the past. They have
used metaphor, necessarily of the past, to qualify their
understanding of the nature of the medium and, via the human
interface, transfer that epistemology to the user/interactor.
The language we use to describe the web is loaded with historical
signifiers. We talk about web "pages" in reference to print and
web "sites" to signify an architectural metaphor.
Sometime between 1840 and 1880 a new medium emerged that would
become what we now call photography.
I'm certain that at its time it wasn't perceived for what it was
and suspect that it was probably dismissed as something
undesirable or unnecessary by the "experts" of the day. Even by
1980, a century later, some art theorists were still claiming
that photography still hadn't made it into the pantheon of great
The then cultural elite condemned photography as "amateurish" -
the creation of an inferior -or- more specifically - an
uninitiated mind. It's worth reiterating here the role of
scholarship as a way of excluding people. Even today higher
education serves to initiate acolytes into discipline specific
and often "shorthand" languages (or jargon) which expressly
exclude the outsider.
A typical example of this kind of criticism is the 1880's
cultural mainstream's dismissal of the impressionists and
post-impressionists many of whom (like Degas with his Racecourse
series) were responding to the photographic image and all of
whom, it can be argued, were responding in some way to the
The other major criticism of a new medium is achieved by
describing work as being involved with the technology of the
medium at the expense of other significant content.
A good example of this is the development of close-up lenses in
the emergent period of cinema. Theatrical experts dismissed the
facial close-up as unnatural and reminded their contemporaries
that God hadn't intended us to see our fellow humans that close.
Both these criticisms (that the work is either amateurish or is
about the technology itself) are typical of the cultural
mainstream's dismissal of emergent media today.
Works are described as "technofetishistic"; uncontextualised; or
just plain crap.
All this distraught and defensive rhetoric emerging from the
cultural mainstream in regard to new media serves to inform us
that something very interesting is going on. Something worth
cultivating and which may well be the seed of an emergent
We can date the starting point for new computational media as
either: John Whitney Snr.'s appointment as artist in residence
at IBM (the first such AiR position at a computer company) which
began in 1962; or as Ivan Sutherland's Sketchpad PhD thesis
delivered at MIT in 1963; or as Boeing Aerospace's use of the
phrase "Computer Graphics" (it's first known use) in that same
Assuming that the gestation of this new medium will take roughly
the same as photography or film we can then add 40 years and
arrive at a date somewhere between 2000 and 2010. I may be
optimistic but I expect a new generation, now in their teens, to
emerge in the mid years of the next decade.
They will show us what the new media can do. They might even
coin an interesting name for it. This 40 year hiatus from 1962
allows the technology to develop and mature. But far more
importantly it enables this new generation to emerge and inform
us all. It's also a generation who's minds are not steeped in
metaphors for the media paradigms of the past and who will be
able to recognise and express the true nature of the media of the
As I indicated above the 1960's are littered with many pertinent
landmarks for the foundation of our current emergent cultural
process. They include: the foundation of the Computer Arts
Society; Nelson's conception of "Hypertext", the establishment
of the art and technology journal Leonardo and; the pioneering
historical review of artist using computers called "Cybernetic
Serendipity" which was held at the Institute for Contemporary Art
(ICA) in London in 1968.
For me the Cybernetic Serendipity was a singular point of
transition. Previously I had seen artworks as objects. Now they
became processes. Cybernetic Serendipity had a profound effect on
a number of young artists and we gradually began to discover each
other. Together we began to learn the skills of using computers.
In those days it meant programming in FORTRAN and Assembler,
punch cards, paper tape and experiments with building digital
circuitry. This was long before "user friendly" appeared.
Back then I assumed that it would take the art mainstream between
5 and 10 years to acknowledge this new and experimental area of
art. This is roughly how long it took Pop Art, Performance and
Conceptual Art to graduate from the 'alternative' venues and into
the mainstream galleries.
Video, for example, became popular with artists in the mid
sixties, just three years before Cybernetic Serendipity took
place. By 1974, just nine years later, the Arts Council of Great
Britain recognised its emergence in The Video Show at the
Serpentine Gallery in London in which I and many of my colleagues
Now thirty years later we know that the mainstream still haven't
caught up. I have neither the time nor inclination to address all
the reasons why but mention in passing: their conservatism and
fear; their fixation on objects; and the fact that
technological-based art threatens and undermines their belief
systems (as, of course, it should!).
One hundred years ago the European tradition was ruled by a
similarly conservative mainstream represented by the Paris Salon
and the Royal Academy. The revolution then was the "Salon des
Refuses" - a fringe show of unrecognised artists whose work
threatened the mainstream for exactly the same reasons as today's
art & technology - it undermined an inflexible belief system.
Nevertheless it was these alternative artists, the impressionists
and post impressionists, who set the agenda for the 20th century.
An agenda we now call modernism. Their work is better remembered
(and commands significantly higher prices!) than that of their
more conservative contemporaries.
But now, a century later, Modernism is the absolute dogma of the
conservative academy despite their feeble rhetoric that claims
conversion to some Post-Modernistic ideals that might more
correctly be referred to as Late-Modernism.
Meanwhile on the fringes, an international celebration of new
media arts has emerged and over the past 30 years grown in
strength. It's my opinion that it constitutes a global Salon des
Refuses. Furthermore I believe that it's likely that it is this
often marginalised group that is writing the agenda for the
creative arts for the 21st century and the new millennium.
I defy anyone to predict what this agenda may be. Indeed Brenda
Laurel warns against attempts to predict the future (LAU89). By
doing so we may prejudice it's evolution.
It's also very difficult for someone who's emersed in the current
paradigm to see a future change particularly when that change
threatens the accepted wisdom of the status quo. In this sense
the future is the enemy. Impressionism would overthrow the 19th
century academy and their criticism of impressionism is
symptomatic of their distress at the immanence of their demise.
That this perception was possibly subconscious is irrelevant.
The new paradigm is like a stranger with a loaded gun that's
pointing at your head. To make them welcome is tantamount to
Here again history teaches us that the new is almost inevitably
rejected by the holders of the status quo.
However I'm tempted to predict some aspects of the new media. In
his landmark essay on Software (KAY84) Alan Kay coined the name
"Metamedium". Although it never caught on it serves to describe
the chameleon-like nature of the computational medium.
To date most of our attempts to use the medium have, as indicated
above, used metaphor to create "intuitive" signifiers to tools
and processes with which we are already familiar.
So the question, framed in 1960's modernist parlance, becomes:
is there an intrinsic nature to the computational metamedium or
are we forever shackled by the expedient metaphors of the
application in hand?
I'm predictably optimistic and see two significant components to
this emergent medium that suggest an answer. The first is
popular culture and, in particular computer games. The second is
field of artificial life or emergent behaviours.
Both have their origins in the work of John von Neumann who,
along with Alan Turing, is credited with the invention of the
modern digital computer.
Cinema succeeded early despite its emergent nature and its
critics. In Proserpine Heritage Museum in Central Queensland
there's a notice in a 1905 newspaper for "one of Mr. Edison's 100
feet feature films". Some 20 years before the medium matured
commercial movie production succeeded and was capturing the
publics attention in even remote parts of the world. Film is a
popular medium that circumvents the censorship of the cultural
arbiters of fashion. Ordinary people go to the movies.
Just as today ordinary people play computer games. It matters
little to them that they may be playing an even greater role in
the emergence of a new metamedium and culture - it's good fun,
good value for money. Who cares if it's art or not!
Von Neumann perceived that games were powerful models of the
behaviour of time-based structures and of life itself. He
codified and named "Game Theory". Amongst his greatest
contributions is his "Theory of Self Replicating Automata"
(VON66) which wasn't proved until after his death by Arthur W.
In order to comprehend and demonstrate his theory Neumann
developed the field of cellular automata that had been devised by
Stanislaw Ulam. These are simple games (often simulated
digitally) which are regulated by simple rules but which can,
nevertheless, manifest complex behaviour.
Cellular automata became a major research interest after John
Horton Conway created "The Life Game" in the late 1960's. Their
study became what's now known as "Artificial Life" or "Emergent
Behaviours". Most recent research in this important area has
concerned the "breeding" of software by the application of
Darwinian natural selection or the field known as "Genetic
Many artists have contributed to this important area since the
1960's. They include: Julian Sullivan; Chris Briscoe; Edward
Ihnatovich; Harold Cohen; Karl Sims; Michael Tolson; William
Latham; as well as Australians Jon McCormack, STELARC and many
Although all of these artists, by virtue of their age alone, are
firmly embedded in the contemporary cultural paradigm they have
nevertheless created a fertile domain for the emergence of the
KAY84 Kay, Alan, Computer Software, Scientific
American, Vol 251, No. 3, pp. 40-47, 1984
KAY90 Kay, Alan, User Interface: a Personal View,
in Laurel, Brenda (ed.), The Art of Human Computer Interface
Design, Addison Wesley, 1990
LAU89 Laurel, Brenda, A Taxonomy of Interactive
Movies, New Media News, Vol. 1 No. 3, 1989.
LEV92 Levy, Steven, Artificial Life, Pantheon
POS92 Postman, Neil, Technopoly, Knopf, 1992
VON66 Von Neumann, John, The Theory of Self Replicating
Automata, Urbana and Chicago: University of Chicago Press,
Experimenta and MESH
This essay was commissioned by Experimenta Media Arts and first
appeared in the Games Theory issue 12 of their publication
Copies of MESH may be ordered from:
Experimenta Media Arts
PO Box 1102
St. Kilda South VIC 3182
+61 3 9525 5025 phone
+61 3 9525 5105 fax
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