An Emergent Paradigm
Copyright © Paul Brown 1996
Commissioned by and first published in Periphery No. 29, November 1996
All Rights Reserved
Lapses in Logic
Beyond the gilded frame
User Friendly - a metaphor for the past
A historical model
Consulting the oracle
Thanks for the signpost
It's reported, athough probably via apocrypha, that Michelangelo
was advised by his contemporaries not to use stone as a medium. It was not
befitting an artist who should, of course, have been using marble. Three
centuries later the Impressionists were reprimanded for using paint from tubes
because, as everyone knew, artist grind their own pigments in order to create a
personal palette. By the early years of our own century we find the
Constructivists being criticised for using modern industrial materials like
plastic and steel and reminded that real artists used stone. Duchamp and
Schwitters were just two Dadaists who were scathingly attacked for their use of
found materials instead of paint out of tubes like the more commendable of
The lessons of history seems plain: the art mainstream is hideously
reactionary and beware any creative soul who experiments beyond the boundaries
For the past 25 year computers have been the forbidden medium. It was OK for
established artists like Warhol and Hockney to use them but for a young unknown
it was the kiss of death.
In the mid 1970's I was a emerging artist who had picked up a few important
awards and commissions. I was introduced to a major critic who could ... "do
my career a lot of good". He spoke glowingly about my work until I made the
mistake of mentioning the involvement of computers. "You mean computers do
this?" he asked incredulously. I hadn't mentioned the fact earlier because the
drawings were quite obviously produced on sprocketed computer paper that had
the Calcomp logo repeatedly printed down one seam. "I thought there was
something cold and clinical about the work", was the critics parting comment.
Twenty years later, almost to the day, I recently won the
Purchase Award in the
Shell Fremantle Print Award. Although the winning piece has attracted some
fairly reassuring praise it has also been described as "cold and clinical".
In his essay "Art and the Net - A Lay View" in the August 96
issue of Periphery Jacques Delaruelle reasserts the conservatism of the
academy. Although he puts it differently he means the same thing:
- "What is missing" from the digital artwork "is the involvement of the
body, a texture, the weight of things, the natural life in which they bathe and
with all these, the quality of attention necessary for a text or an image to be
seized and then transformed by the imagination." (This authors words in
Later he goes on to say:
- "Little time has been devoted to the question of what is actually lost in the
His meaning is clear, the digital, or computational process is defined as a
destructive process by the use of the word "loss". For Delaruelle, this process
has no role in "creative" activity.
It would be petty of me to highlight all the logical discrepancies in
Delaruelle's text but his use of the word "digitisation" is symptomatic of the
fallacy of his argument. Digitisation goes back well beyond computer
technology and, in the form of half-tones, is the main way that images have
been reproduced in print. The original continuous tone image is sampled (in
the pre-computer days using an optical filter) to produce different size dots
of solid colour ink that the eye merges and, by so doing, reconstructs the
continuity of tone of the original.
This kind of digitisation is acceptable to Delaruelle:
- ... "it" is "difficult for me to believe that one can `read'" ... "a
digital image in the same way one looks at a printed" that is to say -
digitised "image". (This authors word in italic).
As any student of philosophy will be aware we are now in dangerous territory.
A distinction has been drawn between one state and another where the "naming"
or "placement" of the distinction is ambiguous. As Spencer Brown makes clear
in the opening definition of his masterwork the "Laws of Form":
- "Distinction is perfect continence."
Lest there is any ambiguity he comments further:
- "Once a distinction is drawn, the spaces, states, or contents on each side of
the boundary, being distinct, can be indicated." (1)
Delaruelle's distinction is incontinent and it pretty soon becomes clear that,
rather than stating an defensible position, he has, like a politician in
retreat, resorted to the use of broadband rhetoric to protect a prejudice. He
doesn't like art that involves computers. His opinion can be summarised in
just seven words.
Readers may now be surprised to learn that I agree wholeheartedly
that so-called computer and network art, with few but notable exceptions,
exhibits a dire lack of value. I'm even game to include most, if not all, of
my own work in that category. However I am quite convinced that the
computational metamedium is the future medium of choice for the arts. How can I
justify such optimism?
The internet began in the 1960's as an attack-proof communication system for
the US Defence Department. Soon afterward artists like Roy Ascott (in the UK);
Carl Loeffler (founder of ArtComTV in San Francisco) and Kit Galloway and
Sherrie Rabinowicz (founders of the Video Cafe in Santa Monica) began using
telecommunication systems. Galloway and Rabinowicz' "Virtual Space" (1977) is
typical. Two groups of dancers, one on the USA's East Coast, the other on the
West, were able to perform together via bidirectional satellite links and video
compositing and projection tools.
In the 1980's the "Aesthetics of Telecommunications" group was founded by Fred
Forest and Mario Costa. Earlier this year Australians had the opportunity of
seeing the work of one of their members when Stephan Barron exhibited at the
Adelaide Festival (2). Despite equipment problems which closed the show early
Barron exhibited two works.
DAY AND NIGHT used the internet to link Adelaide with a gallery in Sao Paulo.
On the roof of each gallery video cameras pointed at the sky. The digitised
images were communicated to each other site where they were mixed and
displayed. The two cities are 12 hours apart - as the sun sets in Adelaide it
rises in Sao Paulo. The exhibited images were a dynamic mixture of the sky at
day and night.
In OZONE the Adelaide gallery was linked to Paris. In Adelaide the atmospheric
ozone hole was sampled, in Paris the ozone in car exhaust fumes was digitised.
Here again the internet transferred data back and forth and it was used to
"play" prepared pianos.
Art-Reseaux (3) is an international group who's members began using fax
communication. In 1992 in Paris I saw documentation of one of their events.
Two fax machines were linked with a single loop of paper. One sending, the
other receiving. The loop of paper travelled between the machines over a table
where participants drew and collaged onto the surface. The result was sent to
another international location with a similar setup. And so on until the faxed
image returned via the receiving machine in Paris. It was a digital "orbit" of
Works like these (4) evolve from the experimental art of the 1960's and help
undermine the modernist aesthetic of "intrinsic" value and the "grand
narrative" of the gilded frame. Artworks become valueless and their relevance
is as a signifier, their content becomes extrinsic dialogue and interpretation.
In January 1994, the internet was popularised by a user-friendly
"browser" called Mosaic. Soon millions of affluent first world citizens would
discover that it was just as easy, and cheap, to create their own publications.
It was vanity publishing gone mad.
User friendly interfaces use metaphor in order to work. Their message is
simple: you don't need to learn anything new to use this software. Digital
Darkroom software mimics real chemical and optical processes. Illustration
packages imitate technical pen and french curve. The metaphor is clearly to
the existing, established paradigm.
And so Mosaic, and the Netscape empire it spawned, reinforces and mimics the
printed "page" and architectural "site". User friendly interfaces have
broadened the franchise and are egalitarian but at this cost - they reinforce
the past at the expense of the future.
Instead of promoting the computational metamedium as a new and unique potential
for the arts they have straight-jacketed it into the current media paradigm.
And here is the source of my, and I'd like to suggest Jacques Delaruelle's,
discomfort. The medium is pretending to be something else and, like most
charlatans, it can't carry off it's pretence and leaves its audience
So the World Wide Web has reinforced modernist concepts of the gallery, the
virtual gallery, as a place for revering and monitarising artworks. It's
re-established the idea of art with intrinsic, self referential values and
compromised the idea of art as extrinsic signifier.
So now it's postmodernism that's undermined. Perhaps deservedly considering
the idiot fringe of some of its rhetoric and the poor understanding of many
artists who mistake its dialogue for an excuse for indulging in romanticism at
I have been searching for historical models since user friendly
interfaces first commercially appeared in the early 80's. I was aware that the
work produced before then (using difficult programming methods) had a greater
sense of integrity and wanted to know why?.
The development of the wet plate process by Daguerre and Fox-Talbot was
followed by a forty year hiatus before the portraits by Margaret Cameron
establish a unique photographic aesthetic. In cinema the invention of the
motion picture transport by the Lumiere brothers in France and Edison in the
USA needed a forty year transition before `Russian montage' evolved and the
language of cinematography matured.
In the early days of photography artists made pastiches of their academic
paintings. In cinema the camera was pointed at the theatre's proscenium arch
and the action was filmed from the audiences perspective. Improved lenses
allowed close-ups then conjunction by montage, or editing, completed the
`grammar' and the new language was, essentially complete. We watch feature
films of the mid 1920's and see complete works that are in essence little
different from today's cinema narratives.
Now we see new media being used to mimic traditional ones. Are we within a 40
year process and, if so, when is it likely to come to term?
Why forty years? Can this period be reduced? This question worried me for
some time until my youngest son, Danny, came to stay for a year. Now 19 Danny
has never know life without computers. He's extremely competent with them and,
most recently has worked as a web and multimedia designer. Danny has now
returned to the UK to study art and technology with Roy Ascott at Newport
College of Art. He'll be emerging as a new talent in his mid 20's - around
2002. Then it clicked. John Whitney Snr. became the first artist in residence
at IBM in 1962 - 40 years earlier. The phrase `computer graphics' was first
used that same year.
Forty year is precisely the time it takes for the technology to mature and,
more importantly, for a new generation of artists to develop who haven't been
influenced by the previous paradigm. It would seem that this can't be
condensed. Forty years is it.
Somewhere in the middle years of the next decade we should begin to see a new
language, a new aesthetic, a new paradigm emerge. Can we possibly foresee what
form it may take?
Brenda Laurel warns against attempts to predict the future (5).
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 suicide.
Here again history teaches us that the new is almost inevitably rejected by the
holders of the status quo. My favourite example is Schwitters. Today his work
seems quite tame and "tasteful". However the contemporary record shows just
how confrontational it appeared to his contemporaries and how viscously he was
reviled for his use of found materials like the bus and tram tickets which he
picked out of the streets of Hamburg.
If we want to watch the new aesthetic evolve we should perhaps
look into those things we like the least, those things which affront our
sensibilities the most. It's there, most likely, that the foundations of the
new language will lie.
And it's here, perhaps, that we can recognise the true value of Jacques
Delaruelle's article (and those of the many other detractors of the new media).
It points to a place and reassures us that the computational metamedium and
telecommunication process, by being so reviled, are almost certain to become a
part, at least, of the future paradigm. What artists will be doing with them
is anyone's guess.
- Spencer Brown, G., The Laws of Form, George Allen and Unwin, London 1969.
- Brown, Paul, Stephan Barron, Catalogue essay for the Telstra Adelaide
Festival, April 1996.
- O'Rouke, Karen (Ed.), Art-Reseaux, Editions du CERAP, Paris 1992.
- for more examples of telecommunication art see:
Popper, Frank, Art of the Electronic Age, Thames and Hudson, London 1993.
- Laurel, Brenda, A Taxonomy of Interactive Movies, New Media News, Vol. 1
No. 3, 1989.
This essay was commissioned by and first published in Periphery
No. 29, November 1996. Periphery is an Australian quarterly regional art and
craft journal which includes a regular focus on indigenous art and
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