Between Chaos and Cosmos

grau2.jpgBetween Chaos and Cosmos: ngel KALENBERG reviews MediaArtHistories, Oliver GRAU (Ed.), Cambridge/Mass., MIT Press 2007.

Ortega y Gasset saw man not as natural, but instead as an anomaly of nature. Human beings, beyond being animals like the rest, have features that clearly differentiate them from, say, hominids. Those elements are human-created, and one of them is technology: our tools. But, these days, technology is met not only with praise. Many theorists hold it to be producing the catastrophe presaged by Heidegger and bemoaned today by Baudrillard and Virilio. Ultimately, it marks a twist of history, like others that elicited James Joyce’s celebrated dictum: “History is a nightmare from which I’m trying to awake?”

Despite Joyce’s reflection on history, along with Oliver Grau’s complaint that digital art “has not “arrived” in the cultural institutions of our societies [*] [and] is not included or supported under the auspices of art history,” Grau himself delves into history as the formidable editor of Media Art Histories. Like many, he is wagering that the time is ripe for digital art -the child of technology- to find its place among other arts. The stumbling blocks that recognition has encountered can be understood by simply answering the question of why acceptance has been so long in coming.

How can an art historian deal with an art that does not demand its own place and does not need a venue to be exhibited? Digital art proposes a turn of the screw that suspends all exception regimes that had comfortably housed certain types of images as well as their producers. Images and, thus, works. But it would be wise to check that sense of stability by recalling that it has long been undermined by a variety of factors: by use of non-noble materials, by fragmentation when collage appeared on the scene, and by use of supports that were no longer canvas, paper, bronze or marble, but in fact anything. But also, because art was becoming ephemeral.

Why? Because today art is no longer what it was, and neither are genres: we accept the contamination between visual, philosophical, literary, theatrical, musical, comic book, advertising, and other forms. And because we don’t know where art history is going, particularly for contemporary art. But isn’t talking about the history of contemporary art an oxymoron? Yet thinkers have already begun to theorize on an anthropology of images (Hans Belting) and to elaborate histories of images. Above all, there has been an exponential development of what have come to be called “visual studies” (Mieke Bal, W.J.T. Mitchell, Keith Moxey, Martin Jay, and others), as a response to conventional art history and to “ocularcentrism.” And in the framework of such studies digital art, surely, has a place.

On what basis? Art’s mission, maintained Paul Klee, is to make the invisible visible. Rilke added that “we are the bees of the invisible.” Normally, art is composed of a material that an artist works, armed with a technique to achieve a form. Thus, Robert Klein held that Alberti, Brunelleschi, Leonardo, and Durer sought to render the idea intelligible in and through the palpable form. The forms that emerge from the new technologies, instead, eschew all ambition of representativity; consequently, in the new ars emerging from digital art, it is the invisible that produces the visible.

And there is yet another reason. Isabelle Stengers relates: “One day in a small rural US city the philosopher William James, who in his spare time engaged in scientific vulgarization, had just finished explaining how the earth revolves around the sun, when a little old lady approached him, and reportedly piped up, “We don’t live on a ball rotating around sun, we live on a crust of earth on the back of a giant turtle.” James, apparently, trying to be courteous, asked her what the turtle stands on. The elderly lady did not doubt for a second: “Obviously, on another turtle.” And James insisted, “And what does the second one stand on?” And the old woman triumphantly crowed, “It’s no use, Mr. James, it’s turtles, turtles all the way down!” It is terribly difficult to understand, to interiorize and apply a new knowledge at all levels and in all instances. A knowledge that triggered a crisis in the paradigm whereby our reality and our capacity to perceive and elaborate on it were formed and constituted.


Because this new knowledge warrants its own history, Oliver Grau has devoted a volume of nearly 500 pages to it, Media Art Histories, which includes 33 essays written by some of the most eminent researchers and scholars in the media arts field, including, interactive, genetic and telematic art, and also robotics, a-life, and nanotechnology. Very wisely, the texts are grouped in four thematic sections: “Origins: Evolution versus Revolution,” “Machine – Media – Exhibition,” “Pop meets Science,” and “Image Science.”

The book opens with a brief text by the legendary Rudolf Arnheim (who devoted great effort to finding a way to apply experimental visual perception studies to the arts), “The Coming and Going of Images,” in which he raises the need to incorporate the new worlds of images into the set of visual experiences encompassed by art history.

In his essay “It Is Forbidden Not to Touch: Some Remarks on the (Forgotten Parts of the) History of Interactivity and Virtuality,” the lucid Peter Weibel proposes a necessary re-reading of kinetic art and op art, adding that a term such as virtual had been foreseen in Moscow, in 1920, by Naum Gabo, who “demonstrated to his students that a single rod of wire, if set in motion with the aid of a clock spring, can become a volume or, more accurately, a virtual volume.” Weibel’s very complete genealogy of kinetic art omits, however, some data that would fill it out: the contributions of the sculptor and urbanist Nicolas Sch ffer who back in 1966, jointly with Jean Tinguely, had already shown in an exhibition titled “Nicolas Schaffer and Jean Tinguely: 2 Kinetic Sculptors,” held at five US museums (The Jewish Museum, New York; The Washington Gallery of Modern Art; The Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; The Carnegie Institute, Pittsburg; and The Contemporary Art Council of the Seattle Art Museum); and Sch ffer himself would later be fueled by cybernetics and imagine cybernetic cities (the future city) and sculptures (the Tour de la D fense, in Paris), and would publish, among others works, La ville cybern tique (1969). The 1970 Sch ffer exhibition at the Denise Ren gallery in Paris was grouped into four sectors: spatiodynamism, luminodynamism, chronodynamism and cybernetics. Also noteworthy would be the stupendous “Kinetics” group show (1970) at the Hayward Gallery, in London, of 67 artists including: Demarco, Garc a Rossi, Kosice, Le Parc, Frank J. Malina (founder of Leonardo), Morellet, Munari, Nam June Paik, Otto Piene, Rickey, Sch ffer, Takis, Tinguely, and Gunther Uecker, on which E. Lucie-Smith would comment: “This, a sheaf of unbound leaflets which wriggle from one?s grasp at the earliest opportunity, must surely be the most unpractical object of its kind ever devised.” He could have also cited the shows of: “Grupa NPS, Nuove proposte sonore” (Biasi, Chiggio, Costa, Landi and Massoni), held at the Muzeum Sztuki in Lodz (1967); “Manfred Mohr, Computer Grapics” (1971), in A-R-C, Mus e d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris; “Arte y Cibern tica” (1969), held at CAYC in Buenos Aires and at the Sala de la Comisi n Nacional de Bellas Artes in Montevideo. At the same time numerous specialized publications continued to come out: Pavilion (including some texts of the Experiments in Art and Technology group), and Science and Technology in Art Today, by Jonathan Benthall, etc.

Not by chance does Oliver Grau title his essay “Remember the phantasmagoria! Illusion politics of the Eighteenth Century and its Multimedial afterlife.” He explains that, “This brief excursion into the history of media, which seeks the old in the new, brings us to the question, “What is really new about new media.”” He discovers in phantasmagoria “a principle that combines concepts from art and science to generate illusionism and polysensual immersion using all contemporary means available. In fact, the phantasmagoria represents a turning point in image history, between the suggestive images of Roman Catholicism (Kircher) and self-declared rationalism. In my view, [*] the phantasmagoria can be understood as a media principle that suggests that contact can be made with the psyche, the dead, or artificial life forms. [*] the phantasmagoria, a hybrid between art, science and magic.”

Coming from the art world, Edmond Couchot, in “The Automatization of Figurative Techniques: Toward the Autonomous Image,” addresses science?s contribution to the production of images: thus he analyzes concepts such as automation, hybridization and neural networks, and their value for the future orientation of art and culture. Perspective, photography, film, television, and digital images have been the stages in the automation of images. But digital images are different from all the forerunners in that they are the result of an automatic calculation by the computer, with no relationship or direct contact with reality. Consequently, adds Couchot, image production processes are not physical, but instead virtual. Moreover, these images will be interactive, that is, they can establish a form of dialogue with their creator or viewer.

Coming from the world of philosophy, Louise Poissant, in “The Passage from Material to Interface,” proposes an intelligent approximation between the material, i.e., works of art with material support, and the universe of bits; she equates the passage from material to interfaces with the passage from logic to the philosophy of language, via Wittgenstein. She goes on to point out that “Various devices led spectators to play a more and more active role in the production of artwork, managing progressively to implicate them in the creation process.” Contemporary acceleration of the interaction between image, sound and words, and viewers has historically been fed by creators who would not accept pigeonholing in a single discipline. And Poissant provides well-chosen examples reflecting that process, ranging from the Futurists Bruno Corra and Arnaldo Ginna (1909), or the stage set designed for Alexandre Scriabine’s Prometheus: The Poem of Fire and his color organ (1910); to that we could add Nicola Kulbine, along with Mikha l Matiuchine, Kazimir Mal vich, and Alexe Krutchonykh (jointly the creators of the Cubo-Futurist opera Victory Over the Sun), and the performances by Allan Kaprow, in the 1960s, the theater of the Brazilian Augusto Boal, the video installations of Nam June Paik (1963), which had in common the viewers? participation, and interactivity with the artists’ proposals. Poissant sees “the transformation in the medium itself, as interest moved from the object’s plasticity to that of the spectators? neural network.”

Meanwhile, Christiane Paul, curator of new media arts at the Whitney Museum, points out in “The Myth of Immateriality: Presenting and Preserving New Media” that the change in works of art (which go “from object to process and from single artist to production and presentation collaboratives,” within a tradition launched, as she correctly notes, by Dada and fluxus), disturbs museums and galleries, and also their curators, since they are moving in a direction contrary to the traditional idea of museum as sacred space, as temple of the muses. She analyzes the museographical problems posed by immaterial works produced by the new media: where should they be shown? In a black box? What should be done with on-line works? How should they be preserved? Yet it should be noted that numerous museums, including the Tate Modern, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and the Whitney Museum, among others, have for years been offering a big contact surface for these manifestations, so much so that they have opened permanent departments devoted to the new media; and more and more art journals have critics specializing in new media arts, and even art fairs and galleries have started showing them. It is true that the market, gallery owners and collectors have reacted somewhat parsimoniously. And until not long ago, in the throes of change, art historians had been reluctant, as this book witnesses.

Lev Manovich, the soft cinema theorist, in his essay “Abstraction and Complexity,” illustrates the influence of science and, in particular, complexity theory, on contemporary software-driven abstraction, thus forming part of a tradition that hit a highpoint in a 1965 with the publication in six volumes edited by Gyorgy Kepes, one of which is devoted to an investigation into “The Nature and Art of Motion,” bringing together studies by scientists, artists, theorists and educators, including Gillo Dorfles, James J. Gibson, Stanley W. Hayter, Katharine Kuh, Hans Richter, George Rickey, and Gyorgy Kepes himself.

One of the paladins of visual studies, W.J.T. Mitchell, contributes a text ironically titled “There Are No Visual Media,” in which he asks what we would forfeit if the umbrella of visual arts were to include other visual products not necessarily encompassed by the fine arts.


Digital art, which is enlighteningly approached from very different angles in Media Art Histories, tends to inhabit a dialectic between chaos -understood as void, disorder- and cosmos, which according to Mircea Eliade is “order, differentiated, differential, and ornamental. It is a painted and tattooed body, beautiful and pleasant to the eye that beholds it.” And this can be gleaned with absolute clarity in this book. Now that Oliver Grau has published this book on the histories (in the plural) of media arts, we are but obliged to wait for him to revisit the subject and provide an equivalent consideration, next time around from the standpoint of aesthetics.

ngel Kalenberg


* Christoph KLUETSCH: MediaArtHistories, in:, 2/2007.
* Jens HAUSER: MediaArtHistories: Eine andere Kunstgeschichte,, Februar/2007.
* Matko MESTROVIC: Kako razumjeti medijsku umjetnost (how to understand media arts), in: Zarez IX/208, 14. lipnja 2007, S. 8-9. (English)
* Paul THOMAS: the converging of art history and media art, in: realtime 78, April-May 2007.
* Stefan HEIDENREICH: Medien und/oder Kunst, in: ICONIC TURN, 28.4.2007.
* Juliette POLLET: Christiane Paul: The Myth of Immateriality, in: DOCAM, 2007.
* Bruce STERLING: Dead Media Beat: MediaArtHistories, in: WIRED Blog Network, 27. 3. 2007.
* Darko FRITZ: Medijska umjetnost probudene provijesne samosvijesti, in: Zarez IX/208, 14. lipnja 2007., S. 10-11.


Jul 31, 12:03
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