Programming abstract machines: the place of the artist facing mediation technology

Abstract: In the field of artistic production made with technology, it seems increasingly difficult to establish valid criteria for analysis of the works than the degree of technological innovation. In contrast, the Flusser’s concepts of technical apparatus and player allow us to understand the artist as a programmer of abstract machines, which operates in the field of aesthetic issues of political, ethical and epistemological processes of technological mediation.

On the horizon of ubiquitous computing and network culture, the borders that separate the fields of art and technology are increasingly blurred. Many artists have technology background while the culture of free software and hardware offer tools that allow other artists without technology training to specialize themselves in programming and development of technical devices. On the other hand, many artworks that circulate in the media art festivals are created by interdisciplinary teams and in cooperation with technology companies. As a consequence of the increasing overlap between the fields of art and technology, methods, theories and models of thought used in the design of media turn out to be automatically incorporated to the art and media theory field. However, it is not a process without consequences.

This new context puts tension to some of the most important conceptual foundations of media art criticism. Most of these procedures seems incompatible with the subversive attitude of artists and theorists until the 1990s engaged in the critique of industrial standardization and mass entertainment. Faced with this apparent paradox talking about a media art artist would mean different things, sometimes even antagonistic. In this context, how to analyze the media art production today? Should the analyses be guided by the critical position about media devices or by the technological quantum of each artwork? Were the artist and media designer statutes merged? These questions allow to investigate the compatibility between models of knowledge production in the technology and art field.

In the media theory field, this problem becomes evident when the concepts from the technological area are brought into the criticism field. In most of the cases this rises more doubts than actually helps in the understanding of expressive practices, using the concepts out of context and creating effects without a cause (Plaza, 2000). To Siegfried Zielinski(2001), one must bear in mind that the media theory is located in the space “between” different knowledge fields, so such theory might build conceptual interfaces between science, technology and human areas. Zielinski postulates that philosophy place the same questions of science, but they are different ways for approaching and that, therefore, each of these ways ultimately lead to different conclusions.

If in fact you can not understand the natural sciences as the media science, it is also not possible to understand the media technology as media art. Although the designer and the artist are involved in a similar context and use the same basic techniques, but each one raises different questions, a fact that will lead to fundamentally different results. The Flusser’s concepts of the technical apparatus allows to address these issues in a privileged point of view. As a consequence the technology is dislocated from the instrument spot that takes place in the functionalist perspective of media design to become a way of formalizing a particular world view, according to the intentions of each artist. From this perspective, it is possible to delimit the art and media engineering as two distinct fields, of which fundamentally different problems emerge. More than the well works of a media device, the artist seeks to operate certain vectors of political, ethical, economic, epistemological coded in abstract layers of technical mediation apparatus.

Thus, it is possible to consider the hypothesis such a shift in the status of the artist in comparison to his previous condition. Instead of reaffirmirming or denying the discourses operated by contemporary media devices, he seeks a dialogical approach towards them. Due to this concept the media artist turns into the one who best receives the statute formulated by Flusser as “homo ludens”, an existential condition in which the man takes the dialogue with each other and with their cultural context as a game, in this case, a game of technological mediation.

Cited works:
FLUSSER, Vilém. “O universo das imagens tecnicas: elogio da superficialidade”. São Paulo: Annablume, 2008.
________. “O mundo codificado: por uma filosofia do design e da comunicação”. São Paulo: Cosacnaify, 2007.
________. “Nascimento de imagem nova”. (unpublished, available at _Vilém _Flusser_Archiv, hosted at Universität der Künste Berlin)
PLAZA, Julio. “Arte e Interatividade: autor-obra-recepção”. Journal of Postgraduate Program, Art Institute, Unicamp, 2000.
Zielinski, Siegfried. “On the Difficulty to Think Twofold in One.” In: Hans Diebner, Timothy Druckrey and Peter Weibel (Editors). Sciences of the Interface. Genista. 2001.

12 thoughts on “Programming abstract machines: the place of the artist facing mediation technology

  1. While your paper was mainly focusing on how to critique, understand, and theoretically position the media artist or “how to analyze the media art production today,” as you wrote, I found myself asking, “Why should the critic, theorist, or philosopher choose to think and conceptualize the media artist in a particular way?”

    All conceptualizations and theoretical models highlight and attend to specific points, while leaving others unattended to. This is not a problem because different models and frameworks allow us to think different things, which seems to suggest that a plurality of methods and frameworks are needed to think something like the media artist. I wonder if one answer to your question then is to always emphasize multiple (even contradictory) approaches.

    If, by thinking with Flusser, media artists are “homo ludens,” what else are media artists that this model does not capture? What becomes incompatible with this approach that is compatible with another? This critic’s choice to use Flusser or another becomes an explicitly political one.

    • I understand your position, but in my opinion, trying to conceptualize the place of media artists is not to suggest a single framework or a particular procedure to them, but instead to think about the place of the artist in a complex system such as the contemporary culture. What I’m trying to do is questioning the compatibility between two different approaches (technicist and refusal), reaching one third based in systemic and cultural vocation. For this, I use Flusser just because their theories offer the multiplicity, ambiguity, conflicting conceptual approaches. And, like all methodological choice (the critic, but also the artist) is a political choice, this is just an approach that attempts to contemplate the political aspect of artistic methods. What would be the place of the artist in contemporary society, the same of the media engineer?

  2. The text addresses, among other things, the gab between the actual work as an aesthetic expression and the technology involved in making the piece. I’m a bit confused; do you want to just talk about the piece without technology? Is that possible? Or what is the precise problem? Also you talk about the increasing use of technology in today’s media art, but haven’t artist not always been using technology? Or is technology equal to digital technology? The text also addresses the status of the media artist. The text claims that the artist is in dialog with contemporary media devices – What does that mean? The artist plays with culture, civilization and other humans? He addresses cultural issues thru his art. How does that differ from – say – all art the last 2000 years?

    • In fact the final text does not attempt to address “the gab between the current work to an aesthetic expression and the technology Involved in making the piece” but the methods of art knowledge production and media engineering. With this approach, it would be possible to think of the artist as a player or a person who proposes a dialog, who creates their works as apparatus that are projected to the world, in a Flusser concept, in order to tension ethical, political, cognitive and epistemological vectors. This artist plays with the vectors of meaning that constitute our culture (both the artistic streams and other sectors of society). Although the game is part of the concept of culture as a complex system, we operate (play) nowadays as artists in the same way the the artists did 20 years ago? The artist has used the technology in the same way throughout the history of art and media? On the other hand, until what degree an artist must know the technology?

  3. I think your paper highlights some important issues – that might even amount to problems – within contemporary media art and the discourses surrounding it. Your critical approach to the field, for one thing, reminded me of something I have considered when attending recent festivals and events for art, technology, and media; namely that the range or circle of artists, coined as ‘essential’ or ‘innovative’, sometimes seems to be quite narrow. When noticing the same artists listed again and again, you cannot help to think a bit sceptical about what kind of theoretical, curatorial, and commercial framings are producing actual canons of new experimental ‘media art’. A more scrutinizing analysis of such mechanisms, which I guess your paper also hints at, is obviously welcome.

    However, I also tend to agree with Zachblas’s comment which points to the positive outcomes of clashes between what you term ”different models and frameworks”. From an experiential point of view, the aesthetic effect and quality produced by numerous artworks (including digital and computational works) often derives exactly from the recipient’s inability to distinguish the technical significance – the “instrument spot” – from the overall artistic vision, and vice versa. The question is if we (or, at least, a majority of art and media festival audiences) really should desire to know which is which? And if we can? – for instance, to single out the “intentions of each artist” could prove a difficult task. Also, in cases where technology as such (devices, code, formats, etc.) is forefronted it is often done in ways which basically keep the actual relations between apparatus (not in a Flusserian sense) and artist obscure or indecipherable to the average recipient. This might be judged as a sort of upholding of a naïve illusion about the in/compatibilities of art and technology? But I do believe that such an aesthetics of ‘non-transparent’ conjugations is essential to experiences, also, of artworks based on computational and digital technology (if these types of works are what you wish to point to in particular). Let us discuss this further…

    • I also tend to agree with your comment when you point out that in many artworks is dificult to distinguish technical significance from the artistic concept. My proposal is not to separate one thing from another, I don’t know if it is possible to do this. On the contrary, I try to understand under what conditions this meeting is even more strength and gives more power to the artwork. One of my hypothesis is that this happens when the use of technology is not naive and when it is not used in a transparent way by the artist. In this point of view, the artwork is more powerful when the artist is playing with the ethical, political, philosophical, economic, social (among others) questions of contemporary culture through yours artistic apparatus. 
      On the other hand, nor is it to discover the intention of the artist or work specifically. Conceptualize general intention is not easy. I think we can only think this intention, in this case, as a purpose that is projected by the artwork into the world. I say this because often it’s difficult establish differences between a technology fair and a media art festival. Art and technology are hybridizing in order to become one field? What are the in / compatibility of this hybridization? The methods and purposes from engineering can be incorporated in the field of art without any reformulation?

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