Date: Mon, 12 May 1997 07:13:36 +0300
From: Tapio Mäkelä

Techno formalism and polygon aesthetics

Tapio Mäkelä


The following text is based on a talk from Digital Dreams last November in Newcastle. It is an attempt to create both historical and critical writing about formalism in media art. I feel there is a need for reflecting on various histories oscillating between old and new media, theory and practices. The emphasis on form, technical performance, visual performance and the mathematical beauty within the new media are cultural constructs linked to orientalist history. I hope you can be patient with the allegories here, they are easier to work with when presenting this live. Please send your comments/questions to me: Tapio Mäkelä

Orientalist Aesthetics & Techno formalism

The very heterogeneous past and equally complex contemporary field of media art can not be analyzed, looked at, or touched upon, through a generalizing theory or history. So you may want to imagine this text on Techno formalism and polygon aesthetics as juggling, which in terms of economical and political power is a conscious act of fooling. My main concern here is to make brief genealogical comments on how mathematics has influenced visual representations and aesthetics. In turn, these notions are analogical (without a conscious or causal relation) with technoformalist aspects of some contemporary media art.

This intonated introduction was a reminder to keep in mind that media art can be discussed, not only in relation to the histories of art, technology and scientific thought, but to the very incoherent past of juggling, collecting, craftsmanship, and leisure. Some of these pasts have been documented in media archaeological accounts by, for instance, Jonathan Crary, Erkki Huhtamo and Simon Penny. The emphasis has been on seeing, showing and related building of devices and virtual environments.

Barbara Stafford concentrated on 18th century mathematical models and optical devices in her book Artful Science.. Without going into detail about any of these applications, I would like to elaborate on two of her theoretical ideas. The first one is an early link between aesthetics and orientalism; the second one is about the loss of faith in representation in the 18th century.

Orientalist Aesthetics

Orientalism was launched as an artful science during the Enlightenment era. A Dutch Hellenist Françoise Hemsterhuis, in his book Lettre Sur La Sculpture from 1789, compared a rude colossus of the Middle East with beautifully shaped Greek sculptures. According to Hemsterhuis, the eastern design was clumsy and impure, and worst of all, related to Catholicism, for which art is popular and affects "lower instincts". According to Stafford, "the corporeal minimalism and clarity of classical Greek art resembled the impalpable intellect immune to the corruptibility of matter". (Stafford 1994, 14).

In a very interesting way, Toshiya Ueno talks about Japanimation, where Japanese subcultures such as Otaku and Manga turn into Techno Orientalism (published before on Nettime). Current Finnish TV ads use Japanese men in ICL advertising as guarantees of origin (orient) and efficiency. Like with Hemsterhuis, technical skills are today considered as a measure of civilization. Similarly, in techno formalism, technical efficiency and performance are measures of quality - and aesthetics.

Roots of modernism’s formalist aesthetics are in this perspective orientalist by definition, and Kantian aesthetics has orientalist roots. With its puritan logic, aesthetics create a double otherness within Europe towards the Eastern Europe and towards the non-European.


According to Barbara Stafford, 18th century scientists and jugglers used similar devices to demonstrate their ideas, to teach and to entertain. The performance of the used device or trick became essential, since audiences would detect any flaws and condemn a failed performance as fraud. Science and technical crafts were simultaneously curiosities and objects that represented progress. Eventually the disbelief of audiences grew to a point, of which Stafford talks about as a crisis of illusion and representation.

In a recent publication, Richard Wright talks about the same phenomenon today: "When [scientific] visualization tries to appropriate `content´ by assuming a ready made artistic genre or by restricting the matter to a straight visual decoration, it can loose the significance of its wider scientific and social references."(Wright 1996, 235).

Fractal fantasies of biological allegory between nature and what Sean Cubitt calls postnature, the technological, can be seen widely today in popular culture, science, and art. Cubitt characterizes the role of William Latham and Karl Sims as artists who merely select parameters and choose aesthetically more pleasing options. Their works, according to Cubitt, "...deploy mathematico-logical formulae according to biological models to evolve hybrid machine-life-forms." Two qualities make these works tick, their computing efficiency and their apparent representation of living organisms. (Cubitt 1996, 245-246)

Like performances of Stelarc or robot art by Eduardo Kac, these very technically spectacular, but for the viewer, intellectually simple projections invite one to dream of the utopias embedded in the conceptual framework, to enjoy or truly appreciate it as art. This contemplative mode is familiar from abstract art, which aimed at an ultimate progress of art by reducing its visible form. This contemplative mode of experience is, ironically enough, deeply religious.

In the recent Escaping Gravity show in Liverpool, Bill Viola presented a video installation in a local chapel. It was a video projection where a male body slowly appeared from water and sunk back. It fully replaced the crucifix as an art/religious object and marked a closure in media art’s appropriation by art institutional frameworks. These works become the digital canon in museums, giving the old media the possibility to evaluate the new media in old terms.

Digitality itself, 1-0-1-0, is the origin for a religious narrative of progress. So many projects borrow their meaning from a value as if inherent in the digital realm. Rhetorically speaking, it is as interesting as talking about pulpness, the essence of doing something on paper. This digital religion has been most apparent recently in the discussion of post photography.

Digital imaging is seen as the new dominant paradigm of representation. Kevin Robins writes that the "capacity to generate `realistic´ image on the basis of mathematical applications that model reality is the most dramatic and significant development of the new post-photography." (Robins 1996, 38)

The paradigm shifts are cultural fictions. There is no essence in the digital photograph, especially when hung on a gallery wall in frames. The break with mimetic representation took place way before the "digital" story. Perhaps there is a sense in which the break with mimesis and realism is more radical than before in cinema or photography.

The former realism has been replaced by a new kind of verisimilitude: but towards what? In Osmose by Char Davies, images are rendered into a smooth movement to give a simulated verisimilitude of an experience of space and movement. Perhaps we are dealing with sensorial realism?

Polygon aesthetics

Polygon aesthetics might describe the attempt to create a perfectly fluid imaging system that would go slightly beyond human senses. Instead of a playful will to knowledge through combining art and science there is a formalist will to technical performance. Instead of ESCaping from representation to communication, media art too often falls into verisimilitude of technical performance and utopian fictions of artificial life and intelligence.

Sensorial realism would of course be a biologically conditioned cultural construct. Stafford talks about continuous visual education that started in the beginning of modern era. Different mathematical visualizations become parts of a utopia and quickly history. If in Bauhaus the equation to the second power determined the speedline forms, today 3-d modelling and Photoshop are merging different algorithms that become everyday life visual landscape. The next process may be about producing sensorial and three-dimensional spatialities. (I have done more writing on this area, so perhaps, if this is interesting, I can post more later).

I am convinced that the process of making technoformalist art can be an extremely intellectual and creative practice - for those who do it. The problem with techno formalism is that it stands in the way of experience and critically engaging activity by those who spend their time looking at or using the work. However, content free media art is not more responsible or conservative than any other content free art - or criticism.

Bibliographic notes:
Sean Cubitt, "Supernatural futures: theses on digital aesthetics". In George Robertson eds., Future Natural. Nature, science, culture.
London and New York: Routledge, 1996.
Kevin Robins, "Will imagee move us still?" In Martin Lister, ed.,
The Photograpihc image in digital culture. London and New York: Routledge, 1995.
Barbara Maria Stafford, Artful Science. Enlgithment entertainment and the eclipse of visual education. Cambridge, Mass. And London: MIT Press, 1994.
Richard Wright, "Art and science in Chaos: contesting readings of scientific visualization."
In George Robertson eds., Future Natural.
Nature, science, culture. London and New York: Routledge, 1996.