Consumer Culture and the Technological Imperative: The Artist in Dataspace

First presented at On the Air symposium
Transit/ORF, Innsbruck, Austria 1993
First published in Critical Issues in Electronic Media
Edited by Simon Penny, SUNY Press, 1995

In many discussions of computer arts, the conversation has focused upon a dialectic between the sciences and the arts, a recapitulation of C. P. Snow's somewhat dated dualism.[1] I want to insert a third term, without which such a discussion can have only limited relevance to contemporary culture: consumer commodity economics.

Unless artists are in direct contact with research labs, their access to `science' is via commodities, and their product, as a product of those tools, can also be regarded as falling within that system. Science, moreover, has achieved its authority in our culture by virtue of the fact that it is the ideology which allowed industrial mass production to occur. Technologies have been brought to market amid complex rhetorics which subscribe to scientific/technical virtues such as speed, precision and the `saving' of labor, and at the same time, call upon humanistic utopian notions such as democracy and leisure. Artists, as members of consumer culture, are immersed and subject to these systems of persuasion as are other members of society. An artist cannot engage technology without engaging consumer commodity economics. I intend here to explore, in various ways, the position of the artist who uses technological tools, with respect to the larger formations of technologically mediated culture. [2]


Disappearing esthetics

In 1990, Canadian artist Nancy Paterson completed a piece called `Bicycle TV' in which an interactive laserdisc was interfaced via a bicycle ridden by the user. The disc displayed video sequences of travel on country roads. Three years later, exercise cycles are available with simulated travel on graphic displays. The release of a consumer commodity conceptually identical to Paterson's artwork places the esthetic worth of the piece in jeopardy. Alternatively: the consumer items are all artworks, or: the piece, though it made claim to exist in the realm of `art' in fact did not. These three, equally unpalatable alternatives, throw into high relief the crisis of meaning for electronic media artwork.

In this liminal territory, `art practice' and technological invention overlap. What is conceived as an art project can become a product to be marketed, a potential money-spinner. I attach no value to this slippage between one role and another, it simply indicates the soft edges of art discourse in this territory.

What if Delacroix's `Raft of the Medusa' had become esthetically redundant due to the proliferation of mass produced vinyl shower curtains, only a few years after its completion ? A conventional response might be to ascribe value to the `originality' of Delacroix's work, of which the curtains were only `copies'. But in the late twentieth century, both theoretically and technically, that notion of intellectual property residing permanently in the `original' is tenuous. Not only is the notion of originality so closely linked to the notion of `inspiration' that it completely denies that artists work in a cultural and historical context where they, at best, `re-process' ideas. But if the work consists of a manufactured bicycle and a laserdisc, these are both already multiples and any traces of the precious `hand of the artist' are scarce.

Unrequited Consumption

Electronic technologies are consumer commodities. Technological `progress', the relentless arrival of new models and updates, is fueled not necessarily by a cultural or societal need, but by corporate need for profit. Markets are constructed in order to sell the new model.

Artists who engage these technologies also simultaneously engage consumer commodity economics. They are induced to upgrade continually. This creates a financial load and a pressure to continually retrain, to learn the newest version of the software. The need to upgrade is not necessarily a product of the artists' esthetic development. Thus they are caught in a cycle of unrequited technological consumption. Artists cannot learn the new technology before it is replaced with another. If art practice requires a wholistic consideration of the cultural context of the subject matter, then the pace of technological change prevents this.

There are numerous cases over the last 25 years of artists who feel compelled to develop a technology to realize their ideas, because they feel their esthetic ideas are intimately linked to the technology of realization. There is a history of artists' fascination with technology, from the Cybernetic Serendipity and Experiments in Art and Technology to Survival Research Laboratories and the Banff Center (Canada) Virtual Reality initiative. One pitfall of this fascination is due to the inherent complexity of electronic technology: artists (generally without all the required technical skills) get bogged down in technical problems and the less tangible esthetic and cultural aspects of the work get lost.

Given the slippery slide of technological change, what is it that artists want with this stuff? There is undeniably a geekiness, a boys-with-toys mentality, a fascination with mechanism. But as members of consumer culture, artists are also not necessarily immune to the sucessive waves of liberatory and democratizing utopian rhetoric, ideas such as : video puts TV in the hands of people, or VR is the best yet manifestation of the space of dreams, or "reach out and touch someone"

As in the case of Nancy Paterson described above, if the artist is lucky, s/he might get the project finished before the corporate R+D labs release a consumer version. But at most s/he'll have a year or two in the sun before there's a Nintendo or Panasonic version. At that point the esthetic value of that labor evaporates.

Is this what art will be in the technological times: way-out-there (unpaid) R+D for the military infotainment complex? (And would we prefer it if we were paid?). There is a history in the US of research labs (Atari in the 80's, Xerox PARC in the 90's) offering artist-in-residencies. There's good evidence that artists' use of emerging technologies is very useful (and cheap) beta- testing for manufacturers. In thewse ways artists sometimes inadvertently support the creation of new markets for technological commodities.

The pace of technological change can also render whole classes of work obsolete, a perfect example being artwork on half-inch video, a history which has effectively disappeared due to the disappearence of playback equipment and breakdown of tape. So here is a dual problematic, both aspects related to the rapid change in technological commodites, one pertaining to art and industrial production, and the other to art and the dynamics of consumer culture:

Contrary to the beliefs of the Art+Technology movement of the 70's, I am arguing that in important ways, this technological system may prohibit art practice, or at least any sort of art practice that takes a critical position. If rapidly increasing standards make the computer artist feel forced to continually upgrade and retrain then little time is left to do the work of artmaking: the creative analysis and questioning of the relationship between these technologies and culture. If art takes for its subject the changing shape and codes of culture, and if technologies remain (culturally) meaningless until they become enmeshed in and play a meaningful part in culture, and if culture evolves over time, then if the artist is forced to forego each technology for the next wave, there is no time to observe and consider such change, and hence, no art.

Beneath this lies a dreadfully vicious possibility, that although the tools change, the underlying value systems do not. We are confronted with a paradoxical condition in which we are challenged to keep up with a changing technology whose philosophical agenda is stagnant or retrogressive. A technology moreover, which has the insidious ability to reify its value system (see Value System of Engineering,below). This value system may preclude art practice.


I recall a Gary Larsen cartoon in which a cretinous-looking student stands up in class and says to the teacher "may I be excused, my brain is full". I feel like that a lot lately. My brain is full of function keys for dozens of obsolete software packages. The prospect of learning a new software application, or even an update, fills me with dread. My professional situation exposes me to more of this than most people, as I'm expected to be able to teach a range of these things, but I would like to look at the question of changing technologies and time management from this perspective.

As a teacher of computer art , I am forced to put in long hours learning new peripherals and their software. I just took a new job. I have to learn the resident software packages, the peculiarities of the lab and campus network, etc. This load translates into hours of rote learning. Imagine if every two years the tools of a painter went out of date and every painter had to re-train: if drawing paper suddenly became multi-dimensional, paintbrushes were motorized, and color-mixing was achieved by numerical operation!

In the context of this changing landscape, my pedagogical strategy has been to emphasize conceptual skills that the student may `port' from one package or plaform to another, rather than to encourage fetishization of a particular product which will likely be obsolete before they graduate. But it becomes clear that what I had considered to be general conceptual notions almost universal to computer art are also subject to obsolescence. As machines become more powerful and more procedures become transparent, conceptual lessons such as the idea of conversion from Binary to Hexadecimal become irrelevant.

This is a load that the pace of technological change and the `irrelevant criterion' of technological up-to-dateness forces upon us. One is bound to ask: will this ever slow down? My current guess is that a consumer resistance will force a change in the cavalier way that new packages are introduced to the market. To some extent that is beginning to happen.

Ossification of Interfaces

I learnt to drive a car 20 years ago, and I can still jump into any car and drive it away. The automobile user-interface has reached a level of maturity where it has ceased to change, a level that software has not yet approached. If so, what constitutes this moment of maturity? The conventional answer would be that the technology reached a maturity, at which time it was fully adopted by the market, the user base. But perhaps this `maturity' was forced by cultural inertia: when 50% of the population learnt to drive in their late teens, the interface stopped changing. That doesn't mean it had become perfect at that moment but that it had become integrated into the cultural fabric. Around that time any number of songs about cars appeared in popular music. I recently heard a blues song which went:

       I'm going to Dallas to get my carburetor cleaned,
       `cause those west Texas women use dirty gasoline.

When MTV has songs about File Transfer Protocols and hard disc optimization we'll know we've reached a threshold. Recently I heard the radio personality Garrison Keillor relate a story about a vacation. The list of things to do before locking up the house included putting out the cat, turning off the oven and backing up the hard drive. It's happening, computer culture is ossifying. Nerd culture leads the way, but it is decidedly a subculture. A few weeks ago a friend remarked that someone "went nonlinear" (they became unpredictable, emotionally unstable.) I'll know that computer culture is here when my mother offers me a `core dump' on some issue.

Does this mean that computing, particularly domestic computing, will stop developing at that point? Yes and no: the interface will set, but changes will occur behind the scenes, where they ought to occur. It makes no difference to the user interface if I am driving a car which runs on gasoline from a carburetor or diesel, fuel injected.

It becomes clear that a technology-in-development passes through certain stages. At the risk of employing a trite and senile analogy, one might couch this in anthropomorphic terms. We might say that any new technology goes through an infancy, an adolescence and an adulthood. Infancy is marked by high expense, low general applicability, development within closed institutions (research labs, universities). Adolescence marks the moment when the technology is generally available, yet open to substantial change. Adulthood is marked by conventionalization, resistance to change and full residence and integration in the community. These stages parallel the software terminology of alpha, beta and full commercial release. In my lifetime I have watched the adolescence of video, CB radio, domestic computing, desktop interactivty and, most recently, VR come and go. Broadcast multi-media has its adolescence now.

It must be emphasised that this `adolescence' is a critical moment for anyone interested in the form a technology will take in culture. It is the moment when the technology acquires its meaning and use as part of culture. Once it is institutionalized it will acquire a conservatism and will resist change. Institutions resist change, as anyone who has been involved in alternative television projects knows too well.


Artistic Knowledge Bases

I contend that artists often work with cultural questions long before they become relevant to the rest of culture. I have observed previously that Conceptual Art can be thought of as "cultural software".[3] Conceptual art, as an end point of modernist reductivism, finally arrived at the disembodied artwork, pure cultural information. Disembodied information is software, and conceptual artists worked on many of the problems that would arise within computer technology outside of and before the technology evolved.

As computing became visual, the skills of image-makers suddenly became valuable in the computing world. As computing becomes multi-sensorial and spatial, the skills of sculptors and dancers will become equally valued.

A vast untapped knowledge base for the development of interactive media exists in the corpus of Happening-Environment-Installation-Performance-Fluxus artwork of the last 30 years: radically formally experimental genres that took the `user interface' and `interaction' as their subject matter before anyone thought of the terms. Wasn't it Allan Kaprow, Jim Dine, Claes Oldenberg in the 60's, and a little later Joseph Beuys, Vito Acconci, Adrian Piper, Arnulf Rainer and a host of others who explored the realm of art as interactive play, of dissolving the artist/audience division? [4 ]Not only is the cognitive science/computer science community generally unaware of this knowledge base, but the general tendency for art research to preempt technological problems remains largely unremarked.

Lev Manovich[5] has made an engaging argument regarding Paul Cezanne's dictum that in painting, forms should be reduced to basic geometrical elements. Manovich points out that Cezanne takes part in the philosophical development of what he calls the `industrialization of vision' that would ultimately find realization in 3D computer graphics almost a century later.

There is an argument bandied about in certain circles that art practice which uses emerging technology is of value because it is future oriented: by virtue of its tools, it is `progressive'. This implicitly puts the artwork in a position subservient to the technology which, by virtue of the fact that it already exists, must be more `advanced'.

I am arguing the contrary: that artists are encumbered by current technologies and realize their ideas in the available technologies as best they can. These are ideas for which the appropriate technologies do not yet exist, as artists are part of the generating system which will give rise to the technology. In terms of technological development, this argument is hard to refute: the intellectual and scientific groundwork for the A-bomb had to exist before the bomb was made. The difficulty would seem to be in allowing that artists can take some active part in the evolution of ideas which create (the desire for) technologies.

Cultural Contexts

There is historically a tendency among the technical community to view their research and production as being outside culture. This is, I believe, a dangerous tendency. A computer is as much a product of the culture that produced it as is a silver tea set or a sacrificial knife. Technological products draw their structure and meaning from the cultural education of their makers.

We hear often that one program is better than another because its interface is `intuitive'or that processes are `transparent'. These terms are closely related in software speak.In this jargon they have acquired different meanings from those they possess conventional English. We certainly do not look through the monitor at the circuit boards behind! Nor do we look through the Graphical User Interface at the code from which it is built. This would be `transparent' in the sense of an early work by Alan Rath, a `word processor' in which a pair of lips on the screen would speak the letter of the key the user pressed on the keyboard. Transparent means that the computer interface fades into the experiential background and the analogy on which the software is based (typewriter, drawing table, paintbox etc) is foregrounded. The paintbox software may or may not be `intuitive' but it is only intuitive because the paintbox is a culturally familiar object. I had one when I was a kid, I know the rules of paintboxes. The computer software models its `interface' on the modes of proper interaction with a paintbox. By the same token, it precludes `improper' interactions like sitting in the paint, eating the paint or smearing it on places other than the `paper'. But paintboxes, and the rules for using them, are culturally specific, specific (to differing degrees) to the user's gender, social class and ethnicity. The presumption of universality of an interface is a pitfall for developers of technologies which will cross cultural borders. Rejane Spitz has illustrated this in the case of the introduction of automatic teller machines (which presume literacy) into Brazil where much of the population is only semi-literate.[6]

You may have seen the T-shirt which says : "Apple gives you the power to be your best". The liberationist rhetoric of computer marketing must be weighed against the reality of value-reification inherent in any complex cultural product such as a computer. No selection process is value free, by definition. Software projects are shaped by the world views of their makers, their value systems are (often unknowingly) incorporated into the work. The value systems of consumerism are `embedded' in hardware or software. The design of GUI's (graphical user interfaces), with their free choice among a fixed range of choices, is a mirror of the diner menu (ranch, thousand island, blue cheese, oil and vinegar) or the supermarket array. At the computer, as in the supermarket, one submits to the interactive scenario and the limited freedoms it offers: total freedom among a set of fixed options. A postmodern capitalist paradise! In postmodern times, we build a personal identity from novel combinations of manufactured commodities. "I shop therefore I am".

Computer technology, hardware architecture and software design, reify value systems.The consequences of this reification was very clearly evident in the Computers and Sculpture session of the 1992 International Sculpture Symposium in Philadelphia. Here I witnessed numerous presentations by sculptors who had harnessed the (awesome) power of the computer to generate variations on their sculptural ideas and control production directly through robotic milling machines, stereolithography and other computer controlled tools. Unfortunately, these sculptural ideas were thoroughly dated, modernist and formalist, and brought no new understanding of the nature of sculpture or its relationship to the computer technology. The application of the technology created a marvellous monotony of variations on Hans Arp or Isamu Noguchi: a `hyper-conformity of difference'[7].

Formalism, canons and algorithms

Formalisms are canonical. Computers are machines for manipulating rule systems, adjusting parameters. An extreme case of the canon is the algorithm. Certain modernist styles are so constrained in their parameters that they can be regarded as rule systems. This has been borne out by the work of Russel and Joan Kirsch who have built a computer program which produces drawings which continue Miro's Constellation series, using a technique known as LISP shape grammars. Similar work has been done by Raymond Lauzzana with respect to the drawings of Kandinsky.

Here the potential basic incompatibility of computer systems with art practice is thrown into high relief, for elaboration of a canon is simply elaboration. But it is the quality of invention which we value in art. Invention is not random, it is based on the analysis of canons and codes, and on the inversion of terms. But this process just generates possibilities, like a genetic algorithm. As with genetic algorithms, the subtle assessment of value among the choices is beyond the capability of the machine. We may posit a rule system for making choices but this system will be grounded in another set of assumptions which are held stable. In artistic invention, this set of assumptions would itself come under scrutiny. This situation results in infinite regress when framed in machine hierarchical terms. But in human culture the relation between sets of rule systems is not one of nesting but weighting of terms in a matrix which enfolds on itself.

Take for facile example the following premises: 1. It's OK to build an A-bomb, but only when you're currently at war. 2. The scientists are guiltless because science is neutral. 3. If you are a scientist who designs a big gun for a middle eastern potentiary, then science is not neutral and you are guilty.[8] There is a circularity to these statements and a fluidity in their criteria which discourage their hierarchical arrangement.

Scientific Imperative

Throughout the C20th, new ideas in the sciences have drifited into the humanities. This process of migration of ideas has much to do with the scientific imperative in C20th culture: science is progress, science is more `true'. Early in the century, relativity and indeterminancy left their mark on the humanities, more recently the technical definition of `communication' in information theory has confused telematic art. In computer arts the idea of the `universal machine' (a basic tenet of computer science) is at best complexifying, at worst completely misleading. For although a theoretical Turing machine may be `universal' in a mathematical sense, the computer as a cultural object is anything but. Variously coded as an ominous force aligned with big business or as the receptacle of ill-defined cyberculture, the machine is highly coded. Whatever apppears on the screen, it is framed by the monitor and keyboard.

The question of the universal machine is indicative of the collision of these two disciplines which have traditionally been quite separate in our culture, art and engineering. Practitioners in computer art tend to come from within one or other of these disciplines. In general, the works that these two types produce seem to possess certain characteristics.

Computer scientists, having been trained in a deterministic discipline, tend away from multivalent information, the counterposed, the complex. They seem to shy away from holding an opinion, desiring political neutrality. The artwork is formal and work arises out of an abstract appreciation of the elegance of an algorithm, a clever application of a mathematical notion, or similar ideas. The final product tends to be a `readout' of the functioning of that algorithmic system, an appreciation of the art quality is derived by reading back into the visual display, intellectually `reverse engineering' the work. The user interface `presents' the obscured (mathematical) beauty functioning in the machine.

When this scientistic mindset is applied by a user of an interactive artwork, it can have dire esthetic consequences. It can lead to an approach in which the work is consumed by intellectual reverse engineering. Having (to the user's satisfaction) `solved' the system, the visitor might move on, oblivious to the fact that they have sidestepped the esthetic dimension of the work.

Computer scientists are trained to manipulate conceptual objects, which (like the universal machine) are assumed to have general applicability to various practical applications. Visual artists are trained to manipulate tangible objects with unique and specific qualities, but which (alone or in association) can allude to larger concepts.

Interactive media artists who come from an art background tend to focus their attention on the experience of the user as an act of communication, on the social space of the interface, the dynamics of interaction. The work tends to be the elaboration of a position, an opinion, it is concept driven. The execution of the program may be expedient, hacked together from whatever code and hardware will do the job. Contrary to the clear and direct presentation of the technical community, these artists exploit innuendo, connotation, allusion and sometimes self contradiction. The information given the viewer tends to be polyvalent, without closure.

The Machine Culture exhibition[9] offered a particularly clear example of this division in two works of interactive fiction. "Edge of Intention" (Joseph Bates et al) [10] uses artificial intelligence techniques to construct an environment in which several cartoon-like agents `play', based on a knowledge base of plot structure and character development by distilling English literature and drama. It is an ambitious project and the developers admit that it is still in its infancy. The characters (woggles) possess rudimentary personality and can sense the location of the user via sonar. The audience experience at this point is fairly shallow, amounting to meeting a group of moody jelly beans.

On the other hand, Luc Courchesne's Family Portrait consisted of four low tech stations: four laserdiscs, four macintosh classics and a simple hypercard stack. Yet the simulation of human interaction was uncanny. The artist had intentionally removed the computer and AV hardware from view, even the monitor was missing, as the image was reflected in an oblique sheet of glass. This focused attention on the depictions on the glass, the portraits. Within these portraits, Courschesne displays great finesse at simulating human interaction in the social space of the interface, between the user and the laserdisc representation. To heighten the effect, the four virtual characters would occasionally break their exchange with the user to interrupt or contradict each other.

Construction of the Viewing Paradigm

As Jonathan Crary has argued in Techniques of the Observer, [11] the cultural training which a viewer brings to an artwork is critical in that person's experience of the work. Modes of consumption of conventional art media are culturally inculcated, behavior at a football match is different from that at a ballet. One common criticism of interactive media art is that the technology or the techniques are in a developmental stage, that they are not mature. This may well be but it is also true that the techniques of the user are also in a nascent stage. Into this vacuum pour paradigms imported from other areas, most commonly those from electronic gaming arcades, from the desktop computer, from televsion and from the art gallery. Not only in the artworks themselves but in the responses of the users, we find a curious condition of `paradigms in collision'. This was illustrated graphically by the fate of Machine in the Garden, a piece in Machine Culture by Nancy Paterson, built on the model of a poker machine. Its handle was ripped off by users keen to `win' the game who were porting their arcade battle game behavior into this new context. Some interfaces have become standardized, become genres, the arcade game is one. I know what to do in a general way before I walk into the arcade.If the arcade game paradigm is applied generally in interactive art, `interpassivity', a Pavlovian interactivity of stimulus and response, will be induced.

There is a burden of responsibility on the visitor to these interactive works because the codes and conventions required to `read' the work have not been culturally established. The new audience must take care not to impose critical judgements germane to an older media (be it computer games or painting) upon a new and different medium.

The Value System of Engineering

Computer engineering, software engineering, knowledge engineering are heirs to the tradition of Engineering, the quintessential industrial revolution science, concerned with production; efficient production by means of standardisation of parts and processes. A computer is a device for automating production. Automation of production is dependent upon standardization of objects and categories.[12]

It may be that this process of standardisation is antithetical to certain creative goals. It is true that many artistic and cultural movements over the last century have attempted to strategize with respect to the phenomenon of industrial mass production: the writings of William Morris provide an early example, Walter Benjamin's The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction[13] remains a crucial early text. Constructivism, the Bauhaus, the Futurists were all concerned with these issues, as were, later in the century, artists such as Les Levine who explored the notion of the mass produced work of art with `multiples'.

Though standardisation is one of the central ideas of mass production, ours is an historical moment when ideas of `standardisation' are being questioned in the humanities and the sciences, from social policies of multiculturalism to endo-physics to the instantly re-programable robotic production line. The engineering world view is similarly invested in the possibility of the `objective observer'. As Florian Rotzer has noted: "the model of the external gradually being superseded, not only in science but also in art." [14]

It might be asserted that the major ideas that have shaped this century are due to Marx, Freud, Einstein and Heisenberg. What effect have their ideas had on the development of the computer? The answer must be close to none. And what of newer philosophical ideas which actively critique Cartesian rationalism: poststructralism and feminism and other varieties of postmodern thought. We might ask `What could a feminist computer be? How might it differ from the computer we now have?' Nell Tenhaaf states:[15]

Contemporary women artists who work in technological media are faced with a contradiction. The domain in which they are operating has been historically considered masculine, yet women's current access to electronic production tools seems to belie any gender barrier. Indeed, women have benefitted in the last two decades to the extent that they have offered some freedom from the sexist art historical and critical practices attached to more established media.The philosophy of technology, however, has been articulated entirely from a masculinist perspective in terms that metaphorize and marginalize the feminine. In real social discourse, this claiming of technology has been reinforced by, and has probably encouraged, a male monopoly on technical expertise, diminishing or excluding the historical contributions of women to technological developments.

She asserts that this invisibility of the feminine calls for ` a radical reconstitution of technology'. We must ask ourselves whether the architecture of the machine as it currently exists, and the premises of software engineering are not themselves so encumbered with old philosophical ideas that any `reconstitution' would amount only to surface decoration.

A case example of the culturally `male' perspective is the standard paradigm of navigation in virtual space. Simply stated:`what the eye wants, the eye gets' in this world of unhindered voyeuristic desire. It is a machine which articulates scopic desire. Erkki Huhtamo has traced an historical continuity from the phallic `penetration shot' of cinema, a paradigm of the all-powerful gaze, a colonizing, conquering gaze to which the limitless infinities of virtual space can offer no obstacle. If navigation in VR is the articulation of the phallic gaze, we might consider what a feminine alternative might be. Agnes Hegedus has presented us with such a `radical reconstitution of technology' in her work Handsight. [16] In this piece the hand guides a helpless eye, as one might help an elderly person. In conventional VR, the eye can fly and grab, unhindered by the body; in Handsight, the body leads the helpless eye about the virtual space. Similarly the virtual space is not a limitless frontier but a closely bounded domain whose physical boundaries prohibit the illusion of limitlessness. This inversion is experiential, one discovers it through interaction and consideration.

These considerations open out onto a vast field of recent critical theory concerning the body, its relationship with gender, with technology and with the mind. My own focus has been on the way the Cartesian mind/body duality has been articulated in computer technology and particularly in VR.[17] Much of the rhetoric around VR focuses on the notion of presence (you will BE there!!). There have been many discussions about the `reality' of virtual presence. (Is it real?, how real is it?) On the one hand postmodern criticism has taught us to abandon the `authentic' as a useful criteria, referring as it does to the previous version or iteration or to memories of childhood. On the other hand, the illusion of `being there' is the rhetoric which sold cinema and TV, and any number of theme park rides over the last 100 years (It probably sold the Sistine chapel). And any chimpanzee can tell the difference between being at the stadium and watching the game on TV.

In late 1990, when VR had just burst out of the labs into popular culture, I began to examine some of the rhetorical claims concerning "the body" in VR. It has been claimed that VR is a liberation from the Cartesian mind-body duality. This would be a marvelous thing if it were true, as neurological and physiological research over the last 50 years seems to indicate that such a distinction cannot be substantiated. The mind-body split is, at best, a philosophical convenience and at worst, completely wrong. The notion of a body (virtual or real) `driven' by mind like some kinds of teleoperated robot, an obedient servant, is a basic tenet of C19th industrialism: the bosses and the workers. To me, VR seemed to blithely re-constitute a mind/body split that is essentially patriarchal and industrialist.

It would be an oversimplification to claim that the body is not present in VR interaction, for this would imply that the body is not the device through which we interface with the technology. But it would likewise be an oversimplification to claim that the body is in VR. The body, we might say, is partially present. It functions as an `effector' but the sensorial feedback is exclusively visual (occasionally with the additon of sound).

VR technology, far from including the body in a virtual environment, actively excludes the physical body replacing it with a body image. One does not take one's body into VR, one leaves it at the door while the mind goes wandering, unhindered by a physical body, inhabiting an ethereal virtual body in pristine virtual space, itself a `pure' platonic space, free of farts, dirt and untidy bodily fluids. In VR the body is broken into sensor and effector components, a panoptical eye and a slave body which `works' the representation but is invisible within it. As such it is a clear continuation of the rationalist dream of disembodied mind, part of the long western tradition of denial of the body. This re-affirms the Cartesian Duality, reifying it in code and hardware. [18]

These examples suggest that the value systems reified in computer technology are somewhat behind the times. One might fairly ask if it is possible to build a `post industrial' esthetic within such a steam powered technology.

Techno-Utopian Rhetorics

A blitzkrieg of marketing, replete with gushing techno-utopian rhetoric, has ushered interactive multi-media into the consumer commodity marketplace. Business people, educators and others now `know' that interactive multi-media not only exists, but is a boon to productivity and creativity. Broadcast Multimedia is currently a very hot business opportunity in the USA. This new technology is only the most recent in successive waves of new technologies which have been borne into the world amidst utopian fanfares. Technophilic hype seems to have been an aspect of technological PR since the beginning of the industrial revolution, as is evidenced by this piece of doggerel from the 1830's:

       Lay down your rails, ye nations near and far--
       Yoke your full trains to Steam's triumphal car.
       Link town to town; unite with iron bands
       The long estranged and oft embattled lands.
       Peace, mild-eyed seraph-- Knowledge, light divine,
       Shall send their messengers by every line...
       Blessings on Science, and her handmaid Steam!
       They make Utopia only half a dream.[19]

It is useful to look at the way these previous technolgies have embedded themselves into culture, for the technologies themselves are mute until they become invested with narratives and enmeshed in culture. It becomes clear that the realities of new technologies as they are actually implemented is generally in direct opposition to the rhetorics which heralded them onto the market. Artists and inventors imbued with a sincere utopianism often (unwittingly) become part of the mechanism by which such technologies become products. The final implementation of those technologies in their social context is often very different from the utopian visions of these artists and inventors.[20]

One of the classic techno-utopian myths of computers is that access to information will be a liberation, and its results will be, by definition, democratizing. The reality of this technology is an effective centralizing of power. This myth is strongly reminiscent of some which surrounded the introduction of television. Whether TV encouraged greater participation in the democratic process is questionable, But it did prove extremely useful for selling goods and inculcating values, and highly profitable into the bargain. It becomes clear the "democratizing" is one of those utopian catch-cries that is always pinned on any emerging communications technology. Armand Mattelart has observed:

...if information were free, everyone would have access to it. If information gave power and were within the grasp of everyone, then power would be in the hands of everyone. If the planetarization of information engendered interdependence, then there would no longer be any risk that power could be used by some to dominate others. Reality reveals what the myth veils. It is through the conflicts of social actors that the use values of information emerge.[21]

When camcorders became available in the 70's, there was much jubilation among activist groups: the tools of production were finally in the hands of the people, who could now make community TV. This argument followed a familiar and idealistic left politic. But two difficulties arose. Firstly, though the `front end' of production was available, the technologies of processing and, more importantly, distribution, remained firmly locked up, passwords like `broadcast quality' kept the amateurs out. The `mass distribution' dream shrivelled on the vine. On a more subtle level, radical video practice was well nigh impossible, as those who attempted it had absorbed the codes of commercial media production on TV and in cinema, since before they could talk. For over a generation, we were able to purchase the technology of consumption but not of production.

So although the technology of production was in new hands, the codes of production and reading were already so instilled that an irregular production or an irregular reading were very difficult to engineer, and required a thorough-going deconstruction of the conventional forms. As Bill Stephenson succinctly asked: "What is harder to do than to de-naturalize the medium that shapes our consciousness?"


Network Art

A paradigmatic example of technological art which has enlisted the democratizing, liberationist rhetoric is telematic or network art. Arising under the influence of the technological utopianisms of both McLuhan and Buckminster Fuller, the basic premise of this practice was that `global connectivity' would result in democratic communication and peaceful co-existence, by virtue of an all-encompassing electronic forum. Later, under the influence of Postmodern critique, experiments by Roy Ascott and others emphasized the possibility of authorless group creative practice made possible by the possibilities of simultaneous joint authorship in dataspace. Network Art has troubled me since I first became aware of it 10 years ago. I find several theoretical difficulties in the premises of this practice, which divide into two categories, the first being question of technologies of communication and the poerating definition of `communication' itself. The second area questions implicit colonialist dymanics and the rhetoric of the global village.[22] [23]

Network art founders on the assumption that communication is actually occurring when groups of people at remote locations on the globe, unfamiliar with each other personally or culturally, exchange digital bits on the net. In one awesomely unsucessful project, students in Sydney exchanged and re-worked faxes with students in Vienna. The documents output at the Sydney end were cultural non- sequiturs, a testament to the faulty premises of the project.The exchanges were reminiscent of those films of pitiful split brain subjects. The Austrians were limited in their communications by their limited English but what was more clear was a series of cultural discontinuities. The Australians assumed their electronic pen pals were just like themselves. Or worse, that they conformed to some ill-conceived notion of the Austrian national character. In this kind of mute exchange there is less communication than speaking to someone you don't know in another country on the phone. Communication requires a set of shared concepts. To the degree that the topology of these concepts held by each correspondent map onto each, communication occurs. Henry David Thoreau observed: "Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys which distract our attention from serious things. They are but improved means to an unimproved end." He continues: "We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas, but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to say."[24]

One defense of this shortcoming was that, in line with conceptualist precepts, the `system' of communication itself was itself the artwork. This argument confuses me in the following way: if the system was the artwork, then it was its own content, but that content was invisible. It was invisible and would remain entirely conceptual (and therefore not need exist) without some message flowing through it. But the message was irrelevant, because the system was the artwork. So it was no surprise that the messages on these systems were so vapid. A further irony was that these systems were not markedly different from systems used at the time by stock markets and bankers to make global connections for quite different purposes. John Broughton has written on the politics of the computer as a mediator of communications: "The systems approach simultaneously dismantles self and culture, assisting precisely that collapse into biology on the one hand and bureaucracy and technology on the other that is so desirable from the point of view of authority...The stress on functional organisation has a doubly homogenising effect: Both psychological and cultural specificity are occluded."[25]

In the visual arts, this focus on `system' arose from the `Art and Technology' movement, early manifestions being Billy Kluvers' experiments of the 60's and Jasia Reichardts' exhibition Cybernetic Serendipity of 1968. In an era of rapidly expanding technologies, an attempt to understand and harness technological thought and product for artistic ends was, and is, laudable. But in this particular case, in exploring esthetic communication across electronic data networks, two distinct and incompatible definitions of communication became conflated. The more recent technologically derived definition (Claude Shannon's Communication Theory) was concerned with a reliable match between data despatched and data received. The more familiar humanistic definition considers sender and receiver as communicators, the technological definition considers only the process of transfer. It was thus mistakenly assumed that if a certain bitstream issued from one place, reached the other as an identical bitstream, then communication was occurring.[26]



After a decade of artistic prototyping of the `electronic community', the rapid expansion of computer networking has led to the realization of the telesocial condition, functioning virtual communities which occupy only telematic space. These communities are spontaneously arising in popular youth culture. MUDs (Multi User Dungeons) are the telematic communities that network artists of the 80's dreamed about. As with Desert Storm reference to the `global village', the popular culture version is not quite what the esthetic researchers had in mind.

An offshoot of more and more complex network games of which Dungeons and Dragons was an early incarnation and Nettrek is a recent and highly complex version, MUDs are active anarchic invention spaces, networked virtual environments interfaced through ascii text. Although there is no competitive game structure, these spaces are highly attractive. MUDs are a virtual costume party which allow users to adopt arbitrary gender and role play. As a space of fictitious simulation, ones' identity is never truly revealed, yet marriages and divorces occur within the MUD environment. One of the US MUDs has a church, run by a real priest. As these communities arise, they evolve their own social problems. Populated in the main by social retards who are generally retiring and introverted, these people become addicted to this virtual social space. They log on for 12 hour stretches, and flunk school due to this ecstasy of communication. But when I asked a MUDer what he did in the MUD he replied that most people "just hang out and eat virtual donuts".

In Japan, a visual MUD called Habitat (originally developed at Lucasfilm) has 8500 regular inhabitants. Realtime gaming is supported in the Habitat environment and social groupings spontaneously arise. There is a community newspaper and local government but the preconstructed visual environment does not allow the variety of invention that the text based MUDs allow. Here emerges a characteristic common to other digital media, that as the bandwidth and resolution increase, the proscription of possibilities also increases, so the space for creative invention seems to decrease.

Volker Grassmuck has sugggested that a new branch of sociology will emerge to study telesocial groupings in MUDs. Certainly MUDs are already causing obsessional and neurotic behavior. But will the sociologist observe on-line social behavior from the comfortable distance of a desk chair in front of a computer or will such a sociologist set up a virtual consulting room or research center in the MUD itself ?

Once this possibility is allowed, then a logical expansion of this idea leads to other sorts of groupings existing entirely virtually. What happens when more and more human institutions drain out of the physical and into MUDs? Its quite easy to imagine all manner of social behavior occuring in MUDs. Clearly universities and shopping malls are an easy step in the visual MUDs like Habitat. some of the activities proposed for interactive TV, gaming in particular, map easily onto MUDs. The possibility of virtual sound studio or a virtual art gallery is very real.

Cruising the Information Superhighway

The exponential growth of digital network communications has sent movie studios, computer companies, cable TV companies, (particularly the `shopping channels'), TV networks and telephone companies all scrambling for a piece of the interactive TV action.[27] The `information superhighway' looks poised to become a gargantuan virtual Mall, with consumer commodity capitalism as its guiding philosophy. In true american spirit, the network will be privatised and society will benefit from all the varieties of progress that money can buy (and none of the others). At Siggraph 92, I heard Marc Canter, ex-head of Macromind, relate his vision of interactive broadcast multi-media. He described an interactive MTV in which Johnny, in his bedroom, can download multiple camera angles and MIDI-code for all the instruments, he can mix his own Madonna video and jam along. This consumption-oriented paradigm contrasts starkly with the democratic interaction paradigm of Network Art.

The impending unification of the telephone, television and computer will create commercially mediated telesocial information spaces. The following current developments indicate the likely shape of these spaces:

MUDs, as discussed above.

Mosaic, the most recent advance in academic networking is a worldwide multi-media information network with a hypertextual interface and more or less transparent access to sound, color image and video online.

Video conferencing

Interactive digital TV, promising realtime ratings surveys, interactive TV games and the proliferation and pluralisation of TV programming.

Video gaming has exploded over the last decade from an arcade amusement to domestic TV plug-ins to handheld portables to personal computers with CD ROM drives. In these transitions, games have followed the major trends of digital technology. Now, with profits from games skyrocketing, most major movie houses are producing game versions of their movies, or interactive features. SEGA will release its stereoscopic (VR) game interface for Christmas 1993. Graphical networked multi-user gaming is close at hand.

The cultural ramifications implied by the concatenation of these technologies is mindboggling, as is the pace with which the change will occur. We can reasonably expect these things to be a reality within 5 years.

These emerging digital media phenomena: interactive media, online multi-media and their hybrids, promise new territories for artistic practice. These new contexts, technological, commercial and (tele)social, demand a reconsideration of methodologies of art production and conventions of consumption. These new forms will inevitably generate new cultural institutions. With these potential realities in mind, it would seem appropriate to begin to plan what kind of art we are going to make in these spaces, what kind of audience we will have and what kind of interaction will occur, ultimately, to consider what art will become in this context.



Though most arguments in this paper have been posed with examples set in the third person, they are my dilemmas as a practitioner in the field. When one is involved in the generation of an artwork which requires the techniques and tools of engineering, the nature of the work as art can become tenuous. The work of R+D engineering is the same, whether one is building an interactive sculpture or a washing machine. In an interdisciplinary field such as electronic media arts, what I have referred to as the technological imperative encourages artists to attempt to be unassailable technically. Even among artists, esthetic issues can often take a backseat because they are more ephemeral. "Once the system is working and robust, then there will be time to deal with esthetic issues" is a common rationalisation. Yet in some cases, that time never comes. It is easy to know if the technology isn't working. It's harder to know if the esthetics aren't working.

Attempting to make art with these technologies may require re-definition of precisely what we imagine `art' to be. The era of online digital interactivity and virtual community will evolve an art genre which may be unrecognizable from a traditional art viewpoint. We call some cinema `art', yet one wonders if Leonardo would have possessed the cognitive and esthetic techniques to perceive or assess cinema. Techniques of the user will evolve along with techniques of the maker, and these media will `grow' cultural contexts. Cinema did not find its place in museums, it evolved a new cultural context and a new code of behavior. Television evolved a new context, simultaneously domestic, realtime and networked, though the realtime networking is limited to a paradoxical reverse panopticality: we all see the newsreader, but s/he does not see us.

This process of building new contexts, new codes, should not be unfamiliar to makers or viewers accustomed to the flow of modernism. Art in the modern period has propagated itself by continually dis-proving itself, continually re-inventing itself in response to changes in culture and technology.

Whatever art is to become in the realm of consumer electronic culture, it is critical that some sort of autonomy be maintained from the pressures of the technological imperative. Otherwise the politic implicit in the technological manifestation will override the necessary anarchic liberty of art.

Simon Penny, Pittsburgh, November 1993


Postscript April 1996

This paper was written in 1993. The sections on MUDs and the Information Superhighway must now be viewed as an historical document. In less than three years, the web has blossomed, no that's too slow, exploded, into a powerful new communication paradigm.This rapid change is a clear demonstation of the problematics of electronic media art practice outlined in the earlier parts of this paper.

Penny, Simon. "Consumer Culture and the Technological Imperative." Critical Issues in Electronic Media. Albany: State U New York P, 1995. 92-112. Print.