DD: In a certain way, it is not so far away from what I have seen at IMAGE FORUM, I must say. At IMAGE FORUM I saw many young works from Japan, mostly video and Super-8. Many of them were very personal, also very much in search of identity. So on a certain level it can be compared a little. It is not about something out in the world, but mostly related to something deep inside somewhere, which the artist attempts to research. Some of the East Germans are more concerned about being German and about changes of their life, while the Japanese are more concerned about family issues and boyfriend problems. But as a general strategy we see that it has something to do with the person who's doing it.
VG: That's a general trend to be observed everywhere: away from the group-based action orientated towards society or the '60s and '70s, there were ideas about things that are wrong in society and we have to organize and start a movement. Art, if it had a political attitude, was located in the context of this kind of grass-roots changes. People in general and also artists today seem more interested in personal expression connected to the body. According to a traditional definition of art it should make a statement about the condition humaine. So if the social structures fall apart, does then art shift to something like psychoanalysis?
VG: This familiarity with a certain way of using media might also be an impediment to coming up with alternative ways of creating art inside media. People in East Europe or here in the "Far East" might have quite different things to say than the trail-blazing Western artists who established the syntax of media usage.
For example, last year, at ISEA [International Symposion on Electronic Arts, Helsinki] there was a boat tour to St. Petersburg, and we were presented with works from Russian computer graphics artists. There was the general feeling among the Western artists who were invited there of a Deja-vu. The stuff the Russians are doing who are discovering this new medium now, is what had been done in the West ten years before. The general explanation was, there is a certain form of expression built into the technology. Your fantasy is guided by what the pull-down menus of a certain software provide you with, and therefore, you get a strong alikeness of the works that are created. What I am trying to point at, is the possibility of a resource of alternative angles.
The other problem was that the whole history of artists working with media did not exist in this sense because there was almost no information about these developments. I tried to solve these two problems by taking historical positions into the show with very early video tapes so that the people see that there has been work in this field since 1965.
I think this emphasis on the "new" is a general problem in all media art issues, also in the western context. This hype about newness depends completely on the technological development and destroys the possibility of of an aesthetic history of one's own in the field of media art. Most of the young media artists or students don't know anything about the pioneer works. They go to ARS ELECTRONICA each year and see the newest things, but they don't know what these things are copies of, they don't know the originals, because there is a big lack of source information.
Another important idea of "Minima Media" was to show only pieces with simple technology, mostly on the level of consumer electronics. This was a way to show that media art is not only a question of big money. Many media art shows focus to strongly on the high-tech level of the equipment. I think it's no longer necessary to prove the importance of media art by the newness of its material. The development is so quick that things risk looking outdated so soon. So if you want to do something that is still interesting in five years, you better not take the latest technology.
DD: From my limited experience of what I have seen here in Japan throughout my three trips, I think that in new media it is easier for people here to get back to their own aesthetic road and to free themselves from strong influences of Western art history.
As soon as you take a brush and oil on canvas, you have everything from Rembrandt until Pollock there, that you cannot ignore. But when you work on the computer or with video, you don't have so much history. You have to get rid of Paik, Bill Viola and Gary Hill, and that's it, already. On the computer you're to yourself even more. I see in Japanese media works sometimes more unique Japanese qualities than in many other kinds of fine art production. So maybe through this kind of fresher media there is a stronger possibility to get back to what people are themselves and to free themselves from this prevailing avant-garde Western influence. But first of all, we have naturally to make clear, that the whole concept of the avant-garde is Western import. There was no idea of avant-garde in Chinese or any Asian culture, nowhere. As soon as we're talking about avant-garde art, it's Western import.
But once the concept of avantgarde is imported, it can take on very independent forms. Maybe this can be compared with changes in the field of technology: all the major export articles of Japanese media industry like photo cameras, TVs or video recorders where invented in the West - but today for us Westerns, they seem to be genuine Japanese products....
To come back to art: just some hours ago I saw an exhibition of early Japanese photography from the 1920s and '30s in the Metropolitan Museum of Photography. I never saw this before. I was absolutely astonished by the high quality level of Japanese photography in the 1920s, and some of it very independent from the contemporary European scene. Yes, influenced by Bauhaus and structural photography, but much more independent than paintings and sculptures of the same time. So I think again that through this new medium it was easier for them to follow their own way. If instead they began to work in bronze, they might have ended up as fake Rodin.
DD: Yea, everybody does one closed circuit video piece. Everybody does one quick editing piece where you just have sound bytes. In every students' group where I go I find kind of prototypes which are always repeated. But I mean, everybody in drawing starts with nude drawing or with a still. So we must see these natural steps that have to be taken to get an awareness of what a medium's possibilities are about, and then to get rid of them. In technology it's not nude drawing, but it is standard cliche things that we all know. You have to do that once. When I bought a video camera I also did some kind of 1970s pieces in the mid '80s myself and tried it out. Maybe this could be formalized by some kind of educational steps to get through it easier.
Maybe we need to come back to Bauhaus. Bauhaus' biggest influence was to have a formal education of how to use different materials according to their inherent qualities. Maybe we need some kind of general structure like this with electronic media, too, so that we get an idea of what is an appropriate thing to do with this and that medium, so that we are not stuck in these formalities from the beginning.
DD: I think you are right. Also you cannot just adapt so easily the things that happen in the real world to the digital domain because there you don't have pre-structured media qualities, just this kind of universal strategy. If you talk about paper, metal, and wood, these have clearly defined qualities that you have in the real world and you should make use of them appropriately, but you don't have this in the digital world, unless you're talking about certain software packages that are updated next year and change quality with each update, and which are no kind of eternal laws any more. In this sense, you are right. So this completely structure-less range of possibilities is even the most difficult to solve problem. Many people talk about a kind of horror vacui. You don't know where you are. What shall I do? Everything is possible, so where shall I start? You don't have anything to hold on to.
VG: In that kind of situation, coming back to the East Germans who start from content and then look for a way to express themselves, would that not be exactly the strategy that an artist should take towards this universal medium?
DD: If he has a content already before he started with the electronic media - this is the big difference because all these people have a career already, like working five years, and then just took what they had and brought it over. Media art is no longer the young people's domain so much, but there are more and more people who have a long established career and decide that they want to try out now these new technologies. Often it is very interesting to see the results, in how far they are able to adopt their own strategy to this different technological possibilities, or whether they only want to make it look the same.
For example, Merce Cunningham is now using digital software for dance choreography. His approach in general is so open already that he can get into that. But I have seen other examples where mere painters tried to paint on the graphic palette what they better did in oil before. So that's not so interesting. Also John Cage worked with software in composing his poems, for example. He used random procedures anyhow, so his way of working was very adequate to digital technology.
DD: You mean that the computer is only used as a random generator for a kind of pre-arranged patterns that then are mixed by the machine and presented in a new order?
VG: For example.
DD: Well, this was really early 1960s, I think. Today we have a more complex structure of interaction, a stronger possibility for dialogue. It starts with good interfaces of which there are not so many that go beyond keyboard and mouse. And the other question is, how deep the interaction with the machine really is. Most interactive works that we know today, like the ones that were shown at ICC Gallery recently, by Boissier, or Seaman, or Shaw, have only a database that is in principal completely pre-structured. It's only up to me which paths I find for going into it. So there is no random aspect in this case from the side of the computer, but, if I put it nastily, it's only a more complicated way for me to get the message. If I could see the overall data structure, then I could say, "okay, that's it, so I don't need any interaction any more." I think the next step that is being prepared already in some works is to create an interactivity that allows the viewer to change the whole data structure. So you don't travel in a pre-defined database but it depends on your own reaction of what you go into looks like.
When we talk about interactivity this has something to do with Umberto Eco's concept of the open art work. The open art work means really that the viewer is not only an experiencer of pre-defined results but that in combination with the man-machine dialogue new results are created, and I think, this is the direction of interactivity on which artists like Ulrike Gabriel [shown at Canon Art Lab], Knowbotic Research or Ponton Media Art Lab are working. It is interesting that especially in this field many artist's groups are active. There are in principle two ways to achieve this kind of open interaction: one ist to link several viewers and to let them react with each other. the second way is that the datastructure itself has a capability to learn different reactions during the interaction.
This last possibility is the direction in which Christa Sommerer and Laurent Mignonneau work. They try to adopt artificial life structures to art. Although, it's very difficult to follow the learning process when you finally use the piece. In principle you should stay for hours or come back once a day - but nobody does that. To create something that allows you to follow the changes of a real open art work in an exhibition situation - I don't yet see the perfect solution.
These are things that could happen much easier on the Net because people here can come back whenever they want and develop a kind of group structure. What is happening in written language on the bulletin boards now could be possible for some other aesthetic structures, too. I don't know any real example of this now, but let's say, you have some kind of cyber sculpture on which five people collaborate, but not like each one chiseling away on his corner. With computer games these group structures are already very popular. [Laughs] But collaborative creativity is still difficult.
For Fluxus, Maciunas had the idea, that anonymous art objects can be ordered by mail under the label Fluxus, without any artist's name attached to it. But naturally, Fluxus members wanted to say "It's me!" and wanted to have their name tag on their multiple. So this did not work, it was only the Fluxus Pope Maciunas who promoted this idea. But the Fluxus label was much more successful than many single artists, who would have been forgotten, had they not been part of the movement. Fluxus was one of the first really international artist's network groups that continued for almost 30 years. Still today people know each other, and some of the group spirit within a worldwide communication structure remains.
This is why I think there is a new interest in Fluxus now, because there is some kind of structure in it that is interesting for the communications era of today. I just saw this Japanese art magazine, Studio Voice, and "Digital Fluxus" was one of the main issues in it. [see also the recent Fluxus exhibition at Watarium]
I see a strong relation in general, not only with Fluxus, between the '60s and the '90s. In the '60s, people like Paik and others who started using media for art didn't mean to create "media art" or "video art" or "computer graphics" as some kind of new small nut shell in the sea of art - like wood cut art or engraving art. This was not the idea, but the aim was to change the overall structure of distribution and of access to art through these new technologies. The main idea was an intermedia art that stands between the established genres.
But these promises were not fulfilled, partly because the '60s did not have the right technology to make it work, and partly because there was no real feedback in the official art world, which was still too closed for these experiments. It seems that today we are somehow retaking the visions of the '60s that were not fulfilled at that time. Suddenly, we have the multimedia society, and we go back to these intermedia visions of the 60s. Many of the artists visions formed in the '60s have become part of everyday culture today, but not through artists, but just through the changes of the society and the communication structures.
DD: Yes, but then again, we have the problem that the 1960s could not solve. I don't see yet the real way to bypass what you call the legitimation structure of the art world. Because bypassing any kind of context-creating structure - which is galleries, museums, curators, magazines, education and all this - makes it so difficult for who should find whom. It's a very good idea that artists might directly address the public, but we have the problem of information overflow in general, and so there is no quality filter within. We just get lost and we don't know how to choose and find what we want if everything is accessible. The question is: What should I be interested in, the artist living next door or one from another continent?
The Internet is a nice medium, and in principle it has this capacity that was researched in the 1960s. Everybody who is on the net can get my stuff, so I am a great artist now, and I have potentially so many million viewers. But then, as long as you don't have in network communication a kind of art context, of art establishment, you will have no successful artists, because success is only created through this evaluation system. So this evaluation system has to be duplicated in the digital world if there should be any kind of discourse, this is what pioneer projects like the art-BBS "The Thing" try to do. Otherwise somebody distributing personally his art from his home terminal on the Internet is like a poet writing poems, making photo copies, and then distributing them at Shibuya station in rush hour. [Laughs] So you don't get the public that you want.
VG: Oh, there is a big difference. In the street you get a random selection of people among whom there might be one or two among thousands who is interested in what you are doing. On the Net, people come to your site and pick up what they like. On the Net the criteria for what is relevant, what is beautiful, what is aesthetically appealing, are moved from all the different institutionalized filter functions to the end user, the individual.
The problem of information overload is, of course, not only one of the art world but still, I think, one that art on the Net has to address. It's a learning process. Of course, there are also technical solutions. If you can name your own criteria for what is relevant, what is beautiful, what you're looking for, you can implement them in a search engine, and send it out on the Net. The psychologically and politically relevant point is, you are the one who decides on the criteria, not the editor of an art magazine, a gallerist, or a record label.
DD: I think this is possible for any kind of real information research, as long as it's clear that it's a certain topic or certain name or some other defined criteria, but I don't believe yet in any aesthetic agent which has my taste and which I send on the Internet to check art works, to read poems from other people, and bring back the ones I like. This will take a long development. Even with the Internet I don't believe in democracy in taste, to put it bluntly.
VG: That's a strong statement. What do you believe in?
DD: I believe in a very complex social process that has always been evaluating art through long procedures of making something very prominent, letting it fall into oblivion afterwards and rediscovering it again. All these things are even much more compressed in recent years. What took thirty years in the early 20th century is now compressed to a five year rhythm. But still the things which remain have to go through this very difficult filtration process. You can try to push something through with all violence, and even if it's the strongest gallery and the best museum that pushes you, if it's not the stuff that survives, it is possible that after twenty years it's over. So there is no approved method to install an artist in art history. It is only this ongoing discussion system that we have. I think that this can be adapted to network structures, but it has to be done by people and through an expert system, an expert dialogue.
DD: I don't think there are any single experts who have the truth for themselves. Absolutely the opposite, most experts are wrong most of the time. But somehow this whole art history discussion system manages to make out of a majority of errors finally the result that in the 1920s there are really five outstanding artists, and that somehow we tend to agree after fifty years. But we have big difficulties to determine this if we are in the contemporary situation.
I think the concept of anticipation is the keyword in this structure of history. Because, why are we interested now in Fluxus, why is this so popular, suddenly? It was not really popular during the 1980s. This is an example for the wave movements of the evaluation process. Because of the way Fluxus artists saw the world at their time, it's influential for our way of understanding what is happening around us today.
Andre Breton once said "The work of art is valuable only in so far as it is vibrant with the reflections of the future" And to this quote of Breton Walter Benjamin refers in his essay on the artwork in the age of reproduction.
Benjamin was thinking about technological development in steps. So first photography, afterwards comes film - a very clear step from still image to motion image. He was saying that the dadaists' simultaneous performance was anticipating aesthetic possibilities of film because they played on stage what later on was happening in cinema with the simultaneous images of different places by the montage technique. So this kind of consciousness montage was pre-performed by them.
Today I think the problem is that we do not have any clear steps in the development of media and of technology any more. The development has become so quick and so complex, that we rather have a constant flow of innovation in all areas at the same time. So we can no longer speak about separate steps which could be discussed in their relevance.
And soon we won't have any clear separation between different media anymore. I think Kittler is right if he states, that in the digital world all media will melt into one single super-medium - and that is the moment nobody will talk about media anymore.
VG: That hardware makers are so very pleased with media artists might also be the reason the traditional art world is not pleased at all.
DD: Yes, sure, many companies are very pleased when their hardware gets the quality of art. There is also a certain group of artists who are willing to feed this kind of desire very easily. But these are the artworks that are certainly forgotten within 20 years.
You asked whether not the engineer has taken over already the role of the visionary. In this case I would even tend to think about a broader idea of creativity that takes in any kind of creative energy that might have strong technological parts or strong artistic parts. I know that this is still not true. There is a very strong, almost 100% separation between the software developer and the artist...
VG: ... there are artists who write their own software, who are media literate enough.
DD: Yes, but still they have completely different roles towards the public. I hope that these two areas will merge more and more in the future. This will be very important, I think, for any kind of future significance of media art: whether it's only decoration or whether it will have any real quality of merging with what is happening in media development. I am curious whether the art world is ready to accept the kind of creativity or intelligence that is coming from the software engineering side.
For me, this is one of the aspects missing in any current media theory that I know, from Kittler to Virilio: they over-estimate the power of pure technological development and of hardware power. They say, there is World War II and then we get the first computer and we get the first audio tape and we get this and that machine, and this enables this possibility. But they never think about the important role of the creative individual who is behind these inventions.
All these media theories so strongly argue from the machine side. And I think today, the machine side is no longer the problem that much, but the human factor is getting more important again. Because the speed and capability of digital hardware power will be close to unlimited soon, and then only the human factor is the limitation of what is possible.
So then again, we are suddenly confronting questions of aesthetic sensorial qualities and of context. This is the big advantage of the art works which we discussed, like pieces by Jeffrey Shaw, Agnes Hegedus, Jean-Louis Boissier, Bill Seaman or Paul Sermon. For me, the most interesting aspects of interactive artworks of the last years are new interface developments, where you have a different way of traveling through a database, be it on a bicycle or be it on a chair or with a bed. So that you get a different feeling between you and the data, and you get rid of this formal interfaces from the keyboard to the data glove which are still very close to the digits. What you do with the data glove is basically typing around in cyber space. But you don't get a real feeling of things.
So this is why I think the artist's part can be very interesting. When we are going to get rid of the formal language communication level, then we need this kind of sensory aesthetic quality, and we have the question of the context, and I don't see very many engineers working on this.
VG: In this row of art works that you described, that I would also name as the ones that I found most appealing, there is one more that needs to be mentioned: the disintegrating painting done by Joachim Sauter from Art+Com ["Der Zerseher" (The Dis-Viewer) using a video eye-tracking system for contact-less interaction with a painting-like image on a screen]. The technology they used was military technology, something engineers had developed and that an artist had applied in a different context.
Therefore, I would not agree with your criticism of Kittler in his strong emphasis on the military context in which certain technologies were developed. I think there is this contextualization of the tape recorder, photography, radar, networks, and the Internet, in fact.
DD: Coming back to the interface: I am sure that even here, military technology is ahead of most of the things happening in media art. Media art is only the last wagon of the train, somehow. That's for sure. But why are things like eye-tracking systems developed? Because of the limitations of the body, because the pilot is not quick enough any longer to check all the dials and buttons at the same time, so he has to work also with his eyes. When he looks at something it has to happen already. When he pushes the button it's too late. So, eye-tracking systems were developed, because of the limitations of the body in an extreme kind of cyber fight situation where two data-controlled fighters meet in the air. This is when this micro second is needed to be the first.
But I think about more peaceful situations where it could be interesting to change the data structure-body relationship and [laughs] it's not only about being nice to flowers and making plants grow ["Interactive Plant Growth", installation by Sommerer and Mignonneau], although this is a very charming interface. Still, I see there is a certain point where a context and an aesthetic quality are asked for, and in these two questions, artists are experts, because they know how to structure a context so that it gets a certain impact on the person who enters this spacial environment. And they know how to give aesthetic keys for more than a strictly coded reaction, for any kind of intuitive reaction. Friederich Kittler only focuses on the man/machine relation through a codified language, his background is basically linguistic and very rational. He does not consider the possibilities of a more intuitive relation to the digital world, based on images, symbols, spaces and situations as they become possible on the multimedia level.
This is why I think the creation of new interfaces is one of the only remaining possible fields of a collaborative interest, because otherwise it's very clear that art has absolutely no influence on the change of technology. The 1920s' idea of the Bauhaus that a good design could pre-structure the industrial production to change the view of the world, I think, is no longer possible today.
To mention just one example of the possible deep interference between the history of art and technology: it is very interesting to compare the role of Alan Turing and Marcel Duchamp who were contemporaries and who had astonishingly similar visions about the future world. The Turing Machine is a kind of "celibatary machine" as invented by Duchamp. I see the whole Turing Test as a kind of celibatary machine. The Turing Test is much more complex than is often thought. You have this triangle situation: one test person who is undefined in sex, and two candidates, one is male and the other is female. The test person has the task to find out through the questions who is male and who is female.
Then in the Turing Test the male is replaced by a computer, and again, the test person has to find out which is the man/machine and which is the woman. The error quote is compared to the first situation and as soon as this error quote is identical the machine is as good as man. So this is a very complex psycho-sexual situation. And then consider Turing being homosexual. He wants to create new beings without the help of woman, a kind of Pygmalion effect, the desire to create thinking without the help of biology.
Turing and Duchamp have very similar strategies in some respects. I made a comparison between them. I use images out of popular culture, for example, mostly from magazines about cyber space that look very much like some pieces of Duchamp from the 1930s. This anti-scientific strategy I find interesting. We go back in history and see this parallelism and then we think: what could this do for the definition of creativity today?
VG: There is kind of fantasy, an anticipating quality that exists...
DD: ... in technology and in art, parallelly.
VG: ... in certain individuals who have a broader vision of where the world is going, or of certain aspects of it, at least, which is not divided into the categories of art here and technology there.
DD: Yea, this is the outcome finally, yes sure. The interface design is only one point where the surfaces of art and technology really meet, and where you can, maybe, prove this point. But in general I think, if we start research of the history of the thinking of the 20th century on a more general level, we will find that the separation between culture and technological development is not so much true any more...
One of the few examples that I have, up to now, found very fruitful is the Duchamp-Turing parallelism, but I think in literature or music we can also find lots of this anticipation quality of future states of living. Let's say, in a piece by Kafka, for example, where this guy is killed by the machine that is writing his death sentence on his back. So this is a very special kind of interface between the coded language and the body.
Many of the things I focus on circle around this concept of "celibatary machines," I must admit, but this tendency seems to be very strong among media freaks. And it is only on the peak of personal obsessions, that these processes of interference between different areas like art and technology become visible.
So the two aspects are: first, outstanding visions point to what is happening in the future - and second, the current history is always re-interpreting what has happened fifty years ago. These two processes have to come together, I think, when we want to eliminate the strong separation between culture and technology that we experience as a problem.
Dieter Daniels, 100115,1772@Compuserve.Com
Volker Grassmuck, firstname.lastname@example.org