In 1852, lamenting the cynicism and lack of support for the Difference Engine, Charles Babbage wrote of his critics: "If you speak to him of a machine for peeling a potato, he will pronounce it impossible; if you peel a potato with it before his eyes, he will declare it useless, because it will not slice a pineapple." This kind of oscillation, between incredulity and disavowal, recurs with almost every technological innovation. Indeed, the search for the universal machine represents a kind of utopian dissatisfaction that comes with a teleology of technology fueled by constant adaptation and driven by shaky notions of absolute necessity. Babbage's work (along with that of Darwin and Lovelace) straddled the disciplines of industry, technology, and information in a way that was only to mature slowly. Yet the crucial bond between these spheres is still at the core of an understanding of the electronic age. In many ways, the aspirations of Victorian science still inflect the post-industrial era-where neo-luddite discourse, vague neo-age theology, and utopianisms (of all kinds) share an elaborate discourse with unrepentant corporate futurologists, virtual visionaries, and increasingly cyborg-theologies. In short, a situation in which cataclysmic transformation is joined with deeply flawed notions of progress and increasingly situational ethics.
But while the era of Babbage's mechanical calculator developed a persuasive relationship with statistics that would lead toward a numerical "mastery of nature," the public technologies of the 19th century focused on light, image, and transmission. The dazzling array of projection, recording, and transmission devices that matured or were invented stand at the core of any coherent understanding of modernity's relationship with scientific and popular forms of representation. And it is no coincidence that technology and modernity were maturing on parallel tracks in a culture inebriated by ocular consumption. The characterization of the 19th century as that of "the scopic regime," as Martin Jay asserts, or as obsessed with "the frenzy of the visible," as Jean Louis Comolli suggests, seems to identify a rather startling realization concerning the relationship of the visual with the intelligible. The fusing of knowledge and identity with the experience of representation was a defining factor of 19th century experience.
No small matter, the involved development of increasingly public forms of technological representation form the core systems that matured (sometimes wildly) in the late 19th and into the 20th century and involved inscription, transmission, reception, and systems of exchange. In Discourse Networks, Friedrich Kittler established the reciprocity between technologies of representation and archaeologies of information. The discourse network can "designate the network of technologies and institutions that allow a given culture to select, store, and process relevant data." Clearly, Kittler's work realizes the limits of rhetorical theory unmediated by technology itself. Practices of information exchange plagued the culture of modernity-as they would its economic practices. Writing, that process of inscription aligned with data transfer, rooted catastrophic shifts in the relation between developing technologies and culture. By 1900, "the ability to record sense data technologically shifted the entire discourse network...For the first time in history, writing ceased to be synonymous with the serial storage of data. The technological recording of the real entered into competition with the symbolic registration of the Symbolic." More pertinently, the strained continuity of exchange exposed the semiotic constitution of both the mechanisms and meanings of information: "To transfer messages from one medium to another always involves reshaping them to conform to new standards and materials. In a discourse network that requires 'an awareness of the abysses which divide the one order of sense experience from the other,' transposition necessarily takes the place of translation."
And while the crucial issues of an historical discourse analysis is vital to a critical approach to contemporary media (and its art), specific histories (and techniques) are often pivotal. Too broad an issue to tackle in detail in this essay, a few hints and references can stand as pointers. In Kittler's magisterial Gramophone, Film, Typewriter he establishes the links between the technical 'apparatus' and the 'psychic' apparatus as they are contextualized in the sweeping effects of technology. Writing on the phonograph, Kittler writes, "Thanks to the phonograph, science is for the first time in possession of a machine that records noises regardless of so-called meaning…the epoch of nonsense, our epoch, can begin."
This view is complemented by Siegfried Zielinski's distinguished Audiovisions: Cinema and Television as Entre'actes in History. A sweeping assessment of the history of audiovisual technologies beginning with Magic Lanterns and extending to the network initiatives of Knowbotic Research, Zielinski brings considerable cogency to the development of the visual culture industries. "The first seventy years of the nineteenth century," he writes, "gave expression to the growing need and technical ability to grasp and appropriate the visible surface of the world through its re-visualization and the ability to play around with it: the cinematisation of the eye and of perception as a counterpart and complement to the extensive acquisition of natural and technical processes for other areas of the production of commodities and meaning." The "culture industry has reified the audiovisual discourse in a number of arrangements, which thus also possess the characteristic features of a dispositif. From a media studies perspective, these arrangements are better comprehensible and explain more than considering isolated types of apparatus."
By the late 19th century experiments in the transmission of images evolved along with the emergence of both cinema and the commercialization of electricity. While the spectacles of cinema provided the nascent entertainment industry with projected - and increasingly narrative - illusions, the pioneers of image transmission were setting the stage for the tele-technologies of the 20th century. "Living pictures," "televisor," "phototel" and ultimately the "phonoscope," "radiomovies," and a spectacular range of other techniques, were enveloped by telegraphy, telephony, and radio where images were being transmitted as harbingers of television. Indeed by the 1920s, John Logie Baird patented and demonstrated "mechanical television." "In the first week of October, 1925, Baird obtained the first actual television picture in his laboratory. At this time, his test subject was a ventriloquist's dummy, "Stooky Bill" which was placed in front of the camera apparatus. Baird later recollected, "The image of the dummy's head formed itself on the screen with what appeared to me an almost unbelievable clarity. I had got it! I could scarcely believe my eyes and felt myself shaking with excitement." http://www.chumcity.com/mztv/pioneers.html>" "In 1927," as Zielinsky writes, "the Scot achieved the first really spectacular results with his experiments. Over a standard telephone line, he sent images from London to Glasgow which were able to be decoded by a receiver there. It really was tele-vision. Further, Baird addressed for the first time the transitory nature of the televisual process with a system that at the same time highlighted the poor quality of reproduction of the mechanically produced visions. He constructed a 'video-disc player,' the first device for television he called the Phonoscope. On a wax disc, like those used for sound recording, the fluctuations of light converted into electrical signals were engraved and could be viewed on a tiny mirror when the disc was 'played' - a process that was only practicable because the amount of information stored was very small: the images consisted of only 30 lines at 12.5 pictures/second. 'Bottling up television' was what the contemporary popular press called this early creation in the genesis of the video recorder."
Surely it is clear that the whirling technologies of the 1920s and 1930s-the maturing cinema industries, the invaluable (for better and worse) radio, commercial sound recording, and television-were paralleled by the first serious considerations of mass psychology, propaganda, and cultural theory (particularly the Frankfurt School). The 'culture industries' were certainly the effect of technologies at the deepest level. Yet technology also found its experimenters in the realms of art in broad forms. Dada, Surrealism, Music, experimental cinema…all assimilated the potentials of media as crucial to encountering the frontiers of creativity and, in many cases, to sabotage or celebrate, the 'mechanization of the world picture.'
Norbert Wiener, the pioneer researcher in cybernetics wrote, in The Human Use of Human Beings, that "every instrument in the repertory of the scientific-instrument maker is a possible sense organ." But the difference between instrumental recording and sensing are not wholly synonymous, even if the extension of the perceptual field is enlarged by technology. Vilem Flusser writes that "electronic memories provide us with a critical distance that will permit us, in the long run, to emancipate ourselves form the ideological belief that we are 'spiritual beings', subjects that face an objective world...Our brain will thus be freed for other tasks, like processing information." He continues on the benefits of electronic memory that "A person will no longer be a worker (homo farber) but an information processor, a player with information (homo ludens)," and that "we shall enhance our ability to obliterate information...this will show us that forgetting is just as important a function of memory as remembering." (On Memory). Situational knowledge, contingent expression? Perhaps the aftereffects of the eradication of legitimate canons of artistic, literary, even political narratives, has created a circumstance in which the meaning and usefulness of experience is wholly related with its engaged relationship with the present. And it comes as no surprise that so-called new media demands a level of participation in the flow of information, intention and technology but does not, necessarily, imply unreflective experience.
Enveloped by pieties of all sorts (ontological phantasies, epistemological illusions, post-traumatic psychologies, pathologized theatricalities, anecdotal embodiments, over-dramatized technical reason, excessive allegories of 'otherness' ), the field of electronic media has been cast as a sphere of managed interactions and programmable subjectivities. Hounded by expectations of flawless computational performance and sustained by extravagant allegories of 'being digital,' the philosophical mystifications and intellectual presumptions of interactivity, virtuality, or cyberspace compel an acknowledgement of imperfection, failure, error.
Mystifications of the 'universal machine,' a 'culture of bad science,' a 'flight from reason,' the compulsion to reproduce, etc., come as stark reminders that urgent issues envelop a culture reeling in the effects of technology. So many of these issues revolve around the transformation of evolving representational systems (in so many forms) and increasingly ephemeral notions of individuality and collectivity, experience and behavior. Perry Hoberman's work, for example, acknowledges-indeed celebrates-the fallacies, falsehoods and faults of algorithmic approaches to the ubiquitous efficiencies of technology while refunctioning them as a repository of miscalculation and obsolescence. His essay "Mistakes and Misbehavior: Tantrums in/Tampering with Cyberspace" opens with the following: "A few definitions: "Immersion:" the willful ignorance of the very apparatus that immerses me. "Virtual:" a tacit agreement to stay on my best behavior while immersed. "Interface:" an impenetrable surface, a shiny shell containing nothing but a hollow void. "Cyber:" mind sans body, pure thought without substance or support."
The willing misinterpretation and refunctioning of media could easily be misread as luddism or technophobia. Yet it is clear that an assault on the 'triumphs' of technical reason, can expose more than the imperfections of technology. It can extend the defacto, normative, and blissfully functional ideology of technology into destabilized, ruptured, and absurd systems more laughable than logical, more possible than rational.
"When Sontag celebrated camp, and when Warhol, around the same time, elevated soup cans into art, they crossed the once-forbidden line separating high and low culture. Three decades later, the line is gone, and so is any sense of irony. Today's pop devotees seem weirdly sincere -- and that's what makes them so compelling." Deborah Salomon: In Praise of Bad Art (NYTimes, 1/26/99)
Claims for the death of irony often come ornamented with the pompous forms of sanctimony, moral hypocrisy, or reactionary aesthetics that typify times of social instability. Indeed, pious sincerity characterizes the end of the millennium in a way that seems oddly compulsive, distinctly pathetic, and as much a signifier of anxious righteousness as it is one of unlikely stability. How else can we conceptualize the astonishing turns characterized by the attempt to retrieve aspects of a century whose sheer destructiveness is paralleled by unprecedented disorder. Indeed, the cumulative effects of 20th century modernity is surely the topic for a massive reflection on the century that began with the split of the atom and ended with atomic sculpture. It also ends with a kind of rendezvous with speculative digital technologies, rhetorically destined to bring fruition to computational or algorithmic life.
Salomon's essay, In Praise of Bad Art, hailed a reactionary trend in the U.S. to celebrate schlock mediocrity and emerged as a kind of apology for the misunderstanding of tastelessness for meaninglessness. But a capitulation to "bad art" is a ridiculous form of retreat. But the attitude represented by the Salomon article, and particularly the phrase "weirdly sincere," strikes a kind of oxymoronic chord that is supported by an avalanche of unfortunate electronic metaphors and outlandish virtual interpretations in a time in which the boundaries between the imagination and technology crumble in strained artistic posturing, pained curatorial narratives, and tortured -if not preposterous- notions of "variable media."
So instead of "variable media" how about viable media, media not drowned by artistically useless demands for upgradable usability, not hounded by domineering state-of-the-art implementations, not 'normalized' by institutional imperatives for stable performance, not limited by demands that they be on the web or not in line, on the screen or out of sight, or not "reduced," as Kittler notes, "to surface effects, known to consumers as interface."
The drive to continue developing resistance to an over-hyped 'necessity' to root contemporary media art on the web or find persuasive alternatives to the managed ideologies of so many institutional-new-media-initiatives is a continuing saga. Too broad an issue to develop here, suffice it to indicate that resistance media has shadowed mainstream media for generations. Often instantiating their possibilities, assimilating their available techniques and equally often parodying their optimisms, resistant media often serves as both caution and possibility, evolving a critical relationship with a field fueled by relentless, often reckless, and generally unconceptualized development. Suffering from mainstream marginalization, this so-called 'alternative media' has become the centerpiece of many initiatives in the territories of electronic media. This has led, after decades of substantial consideration, to a burgeoning discourse of media archaeology in an attempt to rethink marginalized or abandoned technologies eclipsed by the corporate spectacles of cinema, television, IMAX, etc., etc. Easily rationalized as "retro," the more pertinent understanding of this move to retrieve and utilize "dead media" could be understood as a willingness to counteract the drive to ubiquitous and incessant obsolescence and an unwillingness to sustain the imperatives of corporate R&D's desperate interest to market innovation. As evident in web media as it is in the music scene, the ability to outdistance crumbling marketing models is revealed by the inconceivable over-valuation of virtualization so evident in the media biz. Circumventing this system is one of the most potential after-effects of current media.
"As a hybrid of different technologies, VinylVideo™ reveals and connects a variety of media history alignments, combining art, science and technology, low-and high-tech and analog and digital elements to create a new vision (a breaking-open) of the limits of a medium, of consumer technology and of the artifacts of everyday life that quotes the contemporary renaissance of vinyl at the same time that it questions the expiration of technologies." Video, encoded as sound, is pressed onto vinyl records. A "black box" between the record player and a conventional TV interprets and plays the video. Usable as an element of a home entertainment system, VinylVideo™ can be understood as a gadget that can redeem archaic analogue playback while integrating itself with notions of the set-top-box and its intimations of interactivity. Yet the use of the system is also linked with the use of scratch techniques in current music. Part subversion, part
Posed as a "fake archeological relic of media technology," VinylVideo™ provokes a range of questions around the expectations of "a fictitious technological past" (as Charles Gute suggested), the faux-status of innovation, the ploys (and plots) of advertising, the quotidian benefits of aesthetics, the esteem of media theory, the vacuous venture of investment, and the participation of artist collaborators producing editions of "records" (Heimo Zobernig, Oliver Hangl, Annika Eriksson, Monoscope, Harald Hund, Visomat Laboric/Gereon Schmitz, Cut-Up/Geert Mul, Vuk Cosic/Alezej Shulgin, Andrea Lumplecker, Peter Haas, JODI, Lampalzer-Oppermann and Olia Lialina).
Already widely exhibited and promoted (in a kind of performercial, on video, and now on the web >>www.vinylvideo.com<<) VinylVideo™ augments the disruptive work of the ASCIIists working on the web into the margins between the home, gallery and festival. Its Infomercial is parodically revealing. Some excerpts:
dialog: Hi, my name is Karen Coarsefit, i am the vice president of VinylVideo Homesystems Incorporated. Welcome to our program. Right now, with the help of our experts, I'm going to let you in on the secret of how to have a lot more TV viewing pleasure. Aren't you tired of only being able to enjoy one showing of your favorite programs on TV? Aren't you fed up with the same old boring shows, night after night after night? Wouldn't you just love to simply put together your own TV viewing line-up? Have you gotten to the point where you‚ve even considered buying one of those expensive video recorders? You know what I mean ... one of these bulky gadgets that cost a fortune ... and ... I mean, just take a look at the size of the instruction manual ... you probably have to be a rocket scientist to figure out how to work the thing. With VinylVideo, that's all a thing of the past, because all that you need for VinylVideo's picture display is already right there in your home. You might find this incredible, but all you need for VinylVideo is your old turntable that's probably been gathering dust for years on your hi-fi rack, your normal TV set ... AND! ... our VinylVideo home kit that you can order right now. But that's not all. We at Bestbefore guarantee not only that you will immediately begin having more fun watching TV, but we also offer you a one-of-a-kind opportunity to invest money in art that can mean big profits for you. How does it work? Just stay tuned!
picture: found footage - infomercial (couple on couch)
picture: found footage Deleuze
dialog: I would like to present to you several considerations from the perspective of media and communications theory with regard to VinylVideo as an interface linking digital and analog technology which could mark a paradigm shift in theoretical and practical aspects of recording and playback media. Throughout the long history of the moving picture, the orientation of that movement with respect to time, as well as the feasibility of intervening in the direction of that movement, has always been constrained by the linearity of the particular medium as determined by its corresponding technology. If--for example in the case of video technology--there existed the theoretical possibility of intervention in the area of slow motion/freeze frame, then the acceleration of the images and soundtrack proved to be a somewhat more complicated matter. And it was absolutely impossible to abbreviate time sequences by simply skipping over them. By means of digital technologies, a realm of possibilities emerged here which raised the specter of such applications--the fragmentation or the dissolution of this constant space-time vector. To be sure, the possibilities of intervention in this area have been limited until now, since physical action was determined by the programming of zeros and ones. Like every new technology, the numerous components which have been combined to produce the innovative core behind the VinylVideo label also open up a vast array of new possibilities. But there is one highly decisive element which constitutes a tremendous advance beyond any model introduced to date. Here, for the first time, a real manipulation of time--its transcendence, as it were--becomes possible by means of a seemingly simple physical-mechanical act. What is paradoxical about this development seems to be its external form, which has borrowed two of the most highly representative products from the history of audiovisual artifacts and synthesized them into a revolutionary new application. The liberation from space and time combined with the simultaneous feedback link-up to a control instrument consisting of the manifestation of a technological phase thought to have been lost or terminated--or, in any case, completely obsolete--is, in fact, a conception of such bravura that generations of poets, philosophers and scientists could formulate only in their wildest dreams and fables, so that a realistic assessment of the possibilities associated with it remains a highly problematic task at the moment. The inherent potential opened up to us by this new technology and its possible applications seem to be virtually unlimited, and the realization of this potentiality promises to bring with it radical breaches and reformulations of our previous listening and viewing habits as well as, in any case, an expansion of our senses, although this should not be interpreted as an attempt to obscure the fact that, in the final analysis, the uses and the radicality of a technology still remain dependent upon the form and the content of its applications. Moderator: Well, uh, thanks, Gilles. I really don't know what I could possibly add, that was really incredibly interesting.
In his 1991 essay, Black Box S-Thetix: Labor, Research, and Survival in the He(Art) of the Beast, Jim Pomeroy wrote: "In its more constructive aspects, techno-art is a powerful and appropriate vehicle of cultural confrontation and discursive commentary upon the technological religion of our times. Because it embraces the contradictions of our technically advanced society, and amplifies those very tendencies that expose the contradictions, it raises the specter of our extreme hopes and fears…techno-artists have long been busy building up their own store of technical knowledge necessary for survival. Better that than artists once again being left with the task of scrawling the hieroglyphics upon the walls of the temple and the tomb."
And the final word to Raymond Bellour:
"So the point would rather be to make this commonplace but necessary observation: there is no visual image that is not more and more tightly gripped, even in its essential, radical withdrawal, inside an audiovisual or scriptovisual (what horrid words) image that envelops it, and it is in this context that the existence of something that still resembles art is at stake today. We are well aware, as Barthes and then Eco have been pointing out for some time now, and as was so admirably reformulated by Deleuze with an extraordinary emphasis on the image, that we are not really living in "a civilization of the image" -- even though pessimistic prophets have tried to make us believe that it has become our evil spirit par excellence, no doubt because it had been mistaken for an angel for such a long time. We have gone beyond the image, to a nameless mixture, a discourse-image, if you like, or a sound-image ("Son-Image", Godard calls it), whose first side is occupied by television and second side by the computer, in our all-purpose machine society."