Desire for Virtual Space: the Technological Imaginary in 1990s Media Art

Simon Penny
University of California, Irvine
Forthcoming in Space and Desire Anthology
Editor Thea Brezjek ZHDK Zurich

This article discusses technological and discursive developments in the interdisciplinary historical trajectory of theory and practice of digital cultures in the 1990s, specifically around the notion of virtuality and the transition to the paradigm of ubiquitous computing. However hazy, the ideas of ‘the virtual’ and of ‘virtuality’ were central structuring concepts for 1990s media art theory and practice. It is argued here that the concept of ‘the virtual’ was the product of an incomplete and rapidly changing technological constellation. The problematics of ‘the virtual’ were intensified by an incomplete technological understanding among many of the first generation of artists and theorists in digital cultural practices. A general long-term and largely uninterrogated commitment to Cartesian Dualism complemented these shortcomings to produce a heady and confusing discursive mix. Through this period, problems around human-computer interaction (HCI) are shown to be persistent, and attributable in part to the prevailing cognitivist paradigm (part of the uninterrogated philosophical baggage) and its influence both on technological development per se and the rhetorics surrounding it. It is argued that media arts research, as a hybrid of traditional embodied arts sensibilities and the abstractions of computing, was uniquely positioned to identify these problems and model solutions, and did so generally in advance of academic and commercial sectors.

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