Experience and Abstraction: The Arts and the Logic of Machines

Simon Penny
University of California, Irvine


This paper is concerned with the nature of traditions of Arts practice with respect to computational practices and related value systems. At root, it concerns the relationship between the specificities of embodied materiality and aspirations to universality inherent in symbolic abstraction. This tension structures the contemporary academy, where embodied arts practices interface with traditions of logical, numerical and textual abstraction in the humanities and the sciences.

The hardware/software binarism itself, and all that it entails, is nothing if not an implementation of the Cartesian dual. Inasmuch as these technologies reify that worldview, these values permeate their very fabric. Social and cultural practices, modes of production and consumption, inasmuch as they are situated and embodied, proclaim validities of specificity, situation and embodiment contrary to this order. Due to the economic and rhetorical force of the computer, the academic and popular discourses related to it, are persuasive.

Where computational technologies are engaged by social and cultural practices, there exists an implicit but fundamental theoretical crisis. An artist, engaging such technologies in the realization of a work, invites the very real possibility that the technology, like the Trojan Horse, introduces values inimical to the basic qualities for which the artist strives. The very process of engaging the technology quite possibly undermines the qualities the work strives for. This situation demands the development of a ‘critical technical practice’ (Agre).

This paper seeks to elaborate on this basic thesis. It is written from the perspective, not of the antagonistic luddite, but from that of a dedicated practitioner with twenty five years experience in the design and development of custom electronic and digital artworks.

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