Abstract: When contemplating modern art and aesthetics through models of in/compatibility, the motifs of noise and silence seem to emerge by default. One way to address the ”in/compatibility” theme, would be, then, to trace the roots of these motifs from both a historical and aesthetic-theoretical perspective.
Looking back: During the 19th century, formal and epistemological models of western art, which had to a large degree expressed dogmas of ‘transparent’ communication, were challenged and eventually abandoned. This entailed, for instance, a mistrust in linear perspective, that for centuries served as a general matrix for representing and mediating relations between mathematics and spirituality, reality and perception, objects and concepts. As such, perspective was recognized as a format compatible with a variety of artistic expressions and philosophical ideas, capable of establishing a direct line of communication between represented objects and viewer. Eventually this convention was redefined within the modern, autonomous system of art.
Questions of compatibility were continuously important to artists of the 19th century, but in ways very different from previous times. Firstly, the scientific theories that now informed artists’ exploration of compatibility between different art media (for example, the equivalence of musical scale and optical spectrum) and between world and artwork (i.e. the search for true representation) no longer hinged on doctrines of geometric harmony and universal order, but had instead to do with discoveries of the propagation and vibration of waves, as well as new insights into the human perceptual system. Secondly, the renewed recognition of relations between reality and perception involved a shift of attention to the apparatus of the medium itself. And thirdly, this shift exposed how the communicative nature of art was full of noises, interferences, and interruptions rather than indicative of ideals of rationality and clarity.
One example to illustrate this could be the pointillist paintings of Georges Seurat (alongside examples of impressionism, later futurism, cubism, etc). Following a number of contemporary theories of colour and vision, Seurat pursued a scientifically true form of representation by use of ‘pointillist’ technique. The results were generally considered as unsuccessful in terms of being truthful representations of reality, for obvious reasons. However, the artistic-scientific system of Seurat involved crucial aesthetic transpositions. Not only did the pointillist model, anchored in the science of polymaths such as Hermann Von Helmholtz, demonstrate that the optical effect of colour was a subjectively bound construction; a result of interference or ‘noise’ in subjective perception. It also implied a change of the status of the perceiving subject from being a passive receiver of stimuli from external objects into an active contributor to the making of perception itself.
Seurat’s idea of a scientific system of painting that atomized – or, in fact, digitized – the picture plane in order to attain the highest degree of realism, thus, turned onto itself and proved the opposite: Namely, that the intervention of an actively receiving subject implied unexpected degrees of noise in the communicative process. As such this can be seen as the exposure of a fundamental incompatibility between ideals of realist artistic representation and scientific insight. Also, it puts emphasis on the incompatibilities of the medium per se, which in turn had its role redefined from being a ‘silent transmitter’ of meaning between an outside world of objects and a receiver, to instead exploring its inherent means and effects and thereby displaying its noises and distortions.
Listen now: Ideas of ‘in/compatibility’ are an obvious inspiration to many artists working within the field of electronic and digital media. Numerous examples of glitch-, noise-, and malfunction-aesthetics could readily be analyzed under this heading. Furthermore, plurimedial experiments promoted by labels such as Raster-Noton or Touch. deal with strategies of sonificiation and visualization which often gain both aesthetic effect and semantic strength from more or less apparent references to the in/compatibility of formats, media, and diverse data material.
When looking behind or listening closely to the immediate expressive effect of these ‘purely’ digital art works, similar questions about ideal representation, media-noise, and silent/transparent transmission seem to arise, as they did in connection with, for instance, proto-digitizing pointillism and the countless radical, formal experiments that followed, including the domain of music and literature. Thus, it is exactly these similarities, differences and isomorphisms between early modern artistic-scientific thoughts on in/compatibility and contemporary digital aesthetic strategies that could be investigated further.
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