Post-media technoculture – the time of hybrids and hybridisation

Text was published on: „CYBEREmpathy. Visual and Media Studies Academic Journal” 2016, no 1 (12)

Proclamation of the era of post-media had been initiated before new media art became a widely accepted part of contemporary art. When introducing the new concept (post-media) into critical discourse, critics and theoreticians examining these phenomena were somehow forcing us to rethink the not fully constituted element of new-media art.

In 1990, Félix Guattari writes a short text entitled Towards a Post-Media Era which will not be published before 1996[1]. It contains his thesis according to which the existing new media regime, which imposes opinions and controls the behaviour of mass-media recipients, will be broken by the possibility to choose particular content suggested to media users by new telematic systems offering viewers, for example, fifty television channels. Today it may sound a bit naive but this is the first clear impulse referring to a new situation in which the dominant medium loses its position as a hegemon of a unidirectional (broadcasting) communication.

All of the above is related to the situation from before the Internet era, although it rests on experiences presumably associated with the reflection resulting from the appearance of the pre-internet Minitel in France, operating since 1982 owing to France Télécom and French post (La Poste). The combination of television, telematics and information science is the basis for the creation of post-mass media, which are treated by Guattari as the entry to a new era of media. His views also reveal a certain quality of political engagement exerting influence on the type of understanding of the post-media epoch which expresses itself in the increased role of users in breaking the monopolistic position of mass media (to use terminology which is somewhat anachronistic today).

It is a syndrome of a culture being born, a culture whose character is participatory, pro-consumer, collaborative or interactive – to recall only a few concepts describing changes caused by the emergence and formation of cyberculture as a paradigm radically breaking the old ‘vertically’ shaped models of functioning of individuals against the hierarchical model reducing media users to a category of well designed consumers. Thus, the prefix ‘post’ also refers to the twilight of new media and to the new direction in which new media started to develop.  This direction is mainly set by everything that follows the media (also the media of art) which had been historically shaped and stabilised by tradition. In the times of digital convergence, however, the media lose their autonomy as forms framed by rigid rules that determine the type of immanence of a particular medium to the openness based on digital transcoding which turns particular identified media into polymedia (and post-media) sets composed of hybrid tools[2].

The post-media epoch is a time of hybrids, hybridisation and hybridity. Post-media deconstruct but also digitally reconstruct media functioning in the pre-digital era – it is a breakthrough moment related to the need to reconsider the media as a basic category and point of reference for theories of (new) digital media.  If the digital (r)evolution associated with emancipation or appropriation of all areas of activity by a meta-media computer has taken place, it should be noted that the epoch of media is entering a post-media phase, the proof of which (as well as some kind of driving mechanism) may be the numerous displays of media hybridisation. Post-media are hybrid media, and fortunate formulating of the methodological postulate of new media hybrid research may still be ahead. The postulate, drawing on the interdisciplinary research experiences, could integrate into a coherent whole the inspirations coming from research on art, science and technology as three foundations of (future?) hybrid new media studies. The prolegomena to such studies are being formulated by new media researchers. Appreciating the existing tradition and observations in the area of media studies, the researchers manifest their awareness of exhaustion of a certain researchers’ paradigm and the need to describe and conceptualise the dynamic situation resulting from the movement from the theory of media towards the theory of post-media.

„Post-media and the post-media situation – as Piotr Celiński puts it – are media as well as cultural and social communication systems subjected to the workings of digital reconstruction in which they lose their ontological (technical), aesthetic and ideological identity. Their presence in contemporary culture is increasingly based not on their actual, material driving force but on culture spirit and its resilience which exceeds the durability of technological solutions that gave birth to the spirit and maintained it in analogue conditions of mass culture. In digital circumstances medium must face dualism and the hybridity of software/hardware in place of the monolith of traditional forms; fluidity, interchangeability of languages and utility of aesthetics – of interfaces”[3].

There is no doubt that one of the most important factors reconstructing media and conceptualising the problem of post-media – has been the tradition which considers the universal machine (that is a digital computer) to be the basic multimedia apparatus. This is a line which might be demarcated from Alan M. Turing, through John von Neuman, Alan Kay, to Lev Manovich. It forms the foundation for critical reassessment of cognitive efficiency of the term ‘medium’ (and ‘media’) at the moment of trespassing the dominant paradigm of analogue techniques and the clear dominance of the digital code.  Let us begin by stating that it is not about simple identification of post-mediality with the currently dominant paradigm of digital media. The question obviously deserves detailed elaboration, at this point it is only worth stating that the problem with post-media is of such importance for further considerations because it is this very phase of development of contemporary media technologies that is essentially characterized by hybrids, hybridisation and hybridity. Thus, in place of historical references to multimediality, polimediality, transmediality and hypermediality, the centre of theoretical and media discourse should be occupied by the hybrid nature of new media (art).

I agree with the very factual and synthetic capturing of the issues related to post-media as presented by Andreas Broeckman[4], it should be added, however, that differentiation into media and post-media has not been clearly highlighted in his text.  His two basic hypotheses concern three different concepts of post-media and the conviction that there are interesting instances of interference between them which may lead to formulation of a comparative theoretical discourse pointing to both differences and common points.  Firstly, we may talk about ‘post-mass’ media (Félix Guattari, Howard Slater), secondly, about post-media condition of contemporary art (Rosalind Krauss, Nicolas Bourriaud), and thirdly, about post-media as digital media (Peter Weibel, Lev Manovich, Domenico Quaranta). The first optics has already been outlined, the second, as presented, for instance, by Rosalind Krauss[5], is only loosely if at all related to the problem of new media.  A short essay by Krauss, treated as a point of reference in the discussions about post-media, is dedicated to the work of a Belgian artist, Marcel Broodthaers.

The title of Krauss’ book, A Voyage on the North Sea, is a repetition of his experimental film impression from 1974, which was divided into 15 ‘pages’ and displayed on a special ‘home’ screen – after all, such ‘special screens’ were an important element of his explorations in the scope of the form of projection. At the same time, the film was accompanied by a book, which is why the author himself referred to his hybrid projects as book-films. The term post-medium does not seem to appear in the book at all (except for the title), and the author is mostly concerned about the type of art and artists who are searching for ‘new’ media for their expression but do not have anything in common with ‘new media’. The only reference to technical media is the allusion to Stanley Cavell’s concept of automatism. Cavell applied the concept to mechanisation of the film camera determining the nature of the film medium, although the reference to a very traditional understanding of the medium in the spirit of Clement Greenberg becomes more important in this essay. In short, the essence of painting as a medium is the fact that it is a flat surface, sculpture is a three-dimensional object, drawing, in contrast with painting which operates with colour and semi-shade, explores the issues of boundaries, edges, etc. The term post-medium condition is used by Krauss in a very particular way, one which is distant from the context of technical, electronic and digital media, finally, from the perspective of new media art, her remarks seem to be important only in terms of the use of the post-medium concept as such in a context which is completely different.

In 2005 Peter Weibel was a ‘scientific consultant’ of the Postmedia Condition exhibition presented in Neue Galerie in Graz. The following year the exhibition was also displayed in Centro Cultural Conde Duque in Madrid. The text published in the exhibition catalogue became an important voice in the discussion on both the post-medium and the post-medium era because Weibel somehow combines the two types of optics. According to Weibel, the post-media condition is defined by two phases:

„the equivalence of the media and the mixing of the media. The first phase was about achieving equivalence of the media, about establishing the same artistic recognition for the New Media – photography, film, video, digital art – as has been enjoyed by the traditional media – painting and sculpture [...]. In an artistic and epistemological sense, the new second phase is about mixing the media-specific idiosyncratic worlds of the media [...]. This mixing of the media has led to extraordinarily major innovations in each of the media and in art. […]. Video lives from film, film lives from literature, and sculpture lives from photography and video. They all live from digital, technical innovations. The secret code behind all these forms of art is the binary code of the computer and the secret aesthetics consist of algorithmic rules and programs”[6].

Peter Weibel’s reflections refer to both the old technical media and new technical media, however, the conclusions are unambiguous – today it is the computer, understood as both a dominant apparatus and universal machine, that leads the whole art into the post-media phase. At the same time, there appears a clear signal which identifies contemporary art (one which uses both the old and new technical media) as being inherently hybrid. Searching for specific qualities, immanent characteristics of particular media does not have any sense today, because convergence, mixing, mutual shaping or operating at the same base ‘platform’ which is the logic of work of a binary machine makes us understand post-mediality also as decline of media that decisively differ from each other.  It is also difficult to distinguish any medium as a dominant one (let us recall the ‘handy’ opinions about the twentieth century as the ‘era of the cinema’ rooted, for instance, in the language of art criticism), as what dominates today is the process of media convergence and creation of one universal medium which is inclusive of all media. Perhaps like a meta-media computer. Perhaps – as this is a simplification.

Let us add that taking a closer look at some references in Weibel’s considerations to obvious associations with Lyotard’s ‘postmodern condition’ – although Weibel himself does not offer a deeper insight into those references – would necessitate a reflection on the extent to which the previously ‘heterogenous’ media, against the logic of postmodern thinking about heterogeneity of small narratives, are becoming homogenous due to the fact that numerical recording is their ontological foundation. In this context, postmediality, or the post-media condition, is the time of hybrid media. Today, however, their inner logic transgresses the earlier heterogeneity of historically shaped media and, within the present ontological arrangement, it is moving towards homogeneity. We may therefore speak about times which efface the differences between specific media (in this case between the media of art), that is about the era of post-medium dominance, as well as the times of post-media. We need to remember, however, that they do not denote the disappearance of media, but their new configuration in which the prefix ‘post’ predominantly indicates some kind of openness to new impulses which stemm from proclaiming the end of a particular order and from opening onto new paradigms.

Questioning usefulness of the term ‘new media art’ in critical and theoretical discourse, Domenico Quaranta proves that the term contributes to an unjust, unnecessary and harmful ‘autonomisation’ of the activities of new media artists and separation of the term from the world of art as generally understood.

„To conclude, if recognizing that we are living in a postmedia era is just a starting point, the integration of the art formerly known as New Media Art into the contemporary art world is, again, only the preliminary phase of a broader reconfiguration of art worlds. The continental drift has begun. When it will be over, we will be probably able to understand what the word »art« will mean in the new millennium”[7].

Post-digital technologies and post-digital art does not create a radical shift, does not reverse the course of the history of new media development – it rather means that we are witnessing the birth of a new era which is not founded on the debris of new media but an era which places new media in a totally new landscape of techno-culture which, while accepting the ongoing changes, searches for completely new models of functioning.

Apparently, post-media can be examined from many different angles: political, sociological, artistic, ontological and social. However, examining issues related to new media art, one cannot omit the aesthetic perspective. Development of this perspective was initiated already after the publication of The Language of New Media (2001) by Lev Manovich. ‘Post-media aesthetics’ became part of A semi-open source book/Web site in progress, that is a book dedicated to info-aesthetics, which was to be the aesthetics of databases functioning in the information society[8].  The info-aesthetics project stemms from an obvious conviction that information processing, which is the foundation of information society, is currently the key issue for all of those who make attempts at describing reality after the digital breakthrough.  Information has become a product, material processed by the market but also a challenge for the world of art. At the same time, as highlighted by Manovich, the very concept is already inclusive of something new: ‘the form’. Info-aesthetics should thus be concerned with the ‘forms’ in which information is manifested and stored, both at the level of the carrier and at the level of the objects of aesthetic value designed by people. The ‘shape of information’ as the subject of info-aesthetics will bring it closer to many types of formal aesthetics, however, as far as its research methods are concerned, Manovich mainly suggests comparative studies.

What is important for the shape of the modern information society should be compared with the culture of industrial society – as in The Language… new media are discussed in the context of the post-renaissance visual culture which found its culmination (in reference to old media) in modernist art of the beginning of the twentieth century. Manovich is not interested in postmodernism because he sees it as a kind of bridge between modernism and informationalism. Info-aesthetics seems to be a post-media reflection tout court, the notion of new media currently loses its meaning as everything which is somehow associated with the computer as a tool used to work with information – has an inherent new media dimension.  It is, of course, a simplification similar to the one related to conscious resignation from the use of the category of interactivity in contemporary culture – it is pointless to consider this category because, as it is widely known (or so it seems), all new media tools are inherently interactive. However, a kind of shift which accompanies the formation of the post-media era is certainly worth attention: screen media lose their privileged position and ubicomp practices (from ubiquitous computing that is limitless or pervasive computing) become increasingly important. Pervasive and common computer devices which surround us everywhere are completely transparent, they do not necessarily have to be associated with a monitor or traditional computer display (laptop, palmtop, netbook, notebook, smartphone, tablet, etc.). Equipped with processors, everyday devices are not associated „with computers”, although they are computers in fact.

Manovich’s book has not yet come into being in the shape presented above. The author later began to intensively develop software studies (within the Software Studies Initiative) and the concept of cultural analytics, which is a new form of digital humanities based primarily on calculation methods to analyse huge sets of cultural data and the dynamics of their transformations. It is not about simple adaptation of existing methods used in science or industry, but about developing original concepts based mainly on data visualization, digital processing of image information, analysis of large collections of (moving and still) images.

This project relates to some of the concepts which appeared in the ‘manifesto of info-aesthetics’.  As I have already mentioned, one of its key elements is the conviction about a crisis that affected the concept of a medium as an important typological element defining contemporary art. Hence the outline of the concept of ‘post-media aesthetics’[9]as a reaction to the field of artistic activity which has been dynamically changing since the 1960s (with the emergence of new media and their adoption by art). Its changes were not followed by aesthetic reflection. What enabled a fortunate discourse on media, such as painting, sculpture, film or video, turned out to be highly insufficient in relation to new artistic forms, such as happening, performance, cybernetic and intermedia art, as well as time-based art – in short: in relation to the emerging new media art.

The process is intensified due to the arrival of digital tools – on the one hand, media of art increasingly converge or blur the differences defining their nature (for example: photography and painting, film and animation), on the other hand, plurimediality of the structure of artistic works which shapes their hybrid nature has become common. In turn, the hybrid nature, for various reasons, such as exhibition possibilities, financial constraints or conscious choice of artists who search for the best form for their works, projects different forms of existence (variations of exhibition) of the same (and yet not identical) works.  This is true not only in the case of the art of moving image when ‚the same’ realisation may be presented as a traditional cinema film, one-channel installation presented in a gallery or museum, or a multi-channel projection in public space. Good examples are Lech Majewski’s realisations, such as Blood of a Poet (2006) or The Mill and the Cross (2011), but also many other types of new media artistic activities which may take various forms, for instance, interactive art, audiovisual performance or sound art works. All of these practices are both the consequence and the expression of the described syndrome associated with entering the era of post-media. A time when new media and new media art are searching for a new identity.

Endnotes


[1]              See: F. Guattari: Towards a Post-Media. In:  Provocative Alloys. A Post-Media Anthology. C. Apprich, J.B. Slater, A. Iles, O.L. Schultz, eds. Lüneburg, Post-Media Labs, Mute Books, 2013, pp. 26-27. Domenico Quaranta reminds us that Gianni Romano had used the term ‘postmedia’ already in 1994 in the title of the magazine he had launched, that is before the text of Guattari was published for the first time. See: D. Quaranta: Beyond New Media Art. Brescia, LINK Editions, 2013, p. 221. According to other sources, an online version of the magazine was established in 1996 as the first Italian webzine dedicated to contemporary art.  See: http://www.manifesta.org/manifesta4/en/projects/artist1554.html [accessed: 17.07.2015].

[2]              Depth analysis of Guattari’s view regarding the „post-media era” prezents M. Goddard: Félix and Alice In the Wonderland: The Encounter Between Guattari and Berardi and the Post-Media Era. In: Provocative Alloys…, pp. 44-61 and G. Genosko: The Promise of Post-Media. W: Provocative Alloys…, pp. 14-25.

[3]              P. Celiński: Postmedia. Cyfrowy kod i bazy danych. Lublin, Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Marii Curie-Skłodowskiej, 2013, p. 11.

[4]              See: A. Broeckman: ‘Postmedia’ Discourses. A Working Paper. http://www.mikro.in-berlin.de/wiki/tiki-index.php?page=Postmedia+Discourses [accessed: 17.07.2015].

[5]              R. Krauss: A Voyage on the North Sea. Art in the Age of Post-Medium Condition. New York, Thames & Hudson, 1999.

[6]              P.Weibel: The Post-Media Condition. http://www.metamute.org/editorial/lab/post-media-condition [accessed: 17.07.2015].

[7]              D. Quaranta: Beyond …, p. 212.

[8]              See: L. Manovich: Info-Aesthetics: Information and Form, http://manovich.net/index.php/projects/info-aesthetics [accessed: 17.07.2015] oraz idem: Introduction to Info-Aesthetics, http://manovich.net/index.php/projects/introduction-to-info-aesthetics [accessed: 17.07.2015].

[9]              See: L. Manovich: Post-media Aesthetics, http://manovich.net/index.php/projects/post-media-aesthetics [accessed: 18.07.2015].

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