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The Question Concerning Cyberaesthetics. One World – Hybrid Reality

The article was published in: Aesthetics in Actions. Proceedings of the 19th International Congress of Aesthetics, Cracow 2013. Ed. by Krystyna Wilkoszewska. International Association for Aesthetics. Kraków 2015.

Referring to Sidey Myoo’s motto – “There is one human and there are two worlds”[1] – I would like to suggest a different perception of hybrid reality in which our doubled or multiplied “self” in a natural way experiences “multiple realities”. Leon Chwistek’s theory of “multiple realities”, which implies multimodality of our “self”, can be considered a starting point for the discussion. The theory can be treated as a pendant to Witkacy’s concept of “self” – which implies “plurality in unity”.

Web aesthetics (and cyberaesthetics) must be an aesthetics of a multiplied dialogue in cyberspace. Of course, the web should be understood in the whole complex dimension in which this notion can be understood. From the technological, through the human (anthropological) perspective, to the cultural and philosophical aspect of networking. Web aesthetics and aesthetics on the web, the web as a metaphor, but also as a real structure, the web as a challenge and as a space to be managed – these are the issues which require attention. Being netizens – who extensively colonize (and are colonized by) the hybrid, yet, at the same time, integral doubled (or rather multidimensional) reality – we are responsible for developing a formal language to describe art in the era of bio-techno-logical systems. So, let’s create a “web aesthetics” as a contemporary version of aesthetics being the first domain of knowledge providing insight into our ontological and epistemological entanglements in the world of web practices.

Cyberaesthetics is not only an aesthetic phenomena with the prefix: “cyber”. Separating a phenomenon of cyberculture sphere from phenomena of new media sphere is a mistake. Therefore I try to think about cyberculture and cyberaesthetics in terms of their mutual relations with the world of new media. This is integrative and not oppositional thinking. Cyberaesthetics is an attempt at describing the way in which new media shape and co-create cyberculture. And the latter is expressed in new media art (cyberart). Cyberart still needs to be defined. Or, perhaps, if not defined, it needs to be constantly re-defined – and this should set the route to prolegomena which are the foundation for cyberaesthetics. Only dialogue may enable this process. This is why we participate in the dialogue – or precisely – polylogue discussion, for example on the web. Taking into account references to the “philosophy of dialogue” is crucial. Dialogue on the web is the basis for the philosophy of dialogue, of “interfaceology”, which is an interpretation of “interfacing”.

Art in cyberspace

What is the place of art in cyberspace and cyberculture? Writing about “the work of art in the age of digital reproduction”[2] Charles Alexander Moffat states that works of art will not be experienced in galleries because instead spectators will admire artists’ performance – both: the ancient and the contemporary ones – in cybergalleries. There is no convincing reason for such thinking, yet, on the other hand, there is no doubt that cyberspace has become a place where a huge number of images (or rather their digital reproductions) is collected, and for many spectators it is the only possible way to experience classical paintings, sculptures, photographs and also video films, documentations of installations, performances or concerts.

Placing Leonardo da Vinci The Last Supper on the web by the HAL9000 company[3] might assume the proportions of a symbol. The photograph of the fresco located in the church of Santa Maria della Grazie in Milano was taken with the resolution of 16 billion pixels and with the help of contemporary most advanced photographic equipment by Nikon and the cutting edge optics relying on the technique of panoramic photography. In order to achieve an excellent quality of the digital image, 1677 photographs were taken and subsequently turned into one digitalized image. Spectators may enlarge the image on their computer screens by using the zoom feature – which means that they are able to see even the tiniest elements of the fresco, something they would have never been able to see standing in front of the work in the della Grazie church. It would be absurd to claim that watching da Vinci’s masterpiece in cyberspace is the same thing as watching the original. However, the digital replica of The Last Supper may be an ideal addendum and extension of the physical existence of the work of art. This slightly anecdotic event can be a perfect introduction to the reflexions upon the very complex stories of traditional art facing new situations resulting from digital breakthrough in culture, but it can also encourage various (re)interpretations of the state of the art in the age of digital media.

As a result of cultural transformations a number of new forms of electronic art and cyberart have been created, simultaneously, digital tools have enabled the earlier unknown, because technologically impossible, methods of representation, promotion, distribution and they have given the opportunity to develop completely new research methods, for example, for the analysis of the structure of images. The digital copy of The Last Supper will not substitute the original, although it presents researchers and common spectators with totally new possibilities of monitor perception. Thus, new perspectives of viewing the history of the traditional (let’s say, pre-digital) art with the use of “digital glasses” have emerged and they are different from the ones we have known so far.

(New) Media art in cyberculture

Media art seems to be one of the key issues of cyberculture –  both in terms of new technocultural tendencies being manifested in society defined by using new computer technologies (not only, though) and in terms of playing a special role in the process of (self)defining of a new cultural paradigm. Cyberculture finds art to be a perfect medium in which fundamental characteristics of culture of the age of information and communication are revealed.

It has been brought to our attention by Ryszard W: Kluszczyński:  “If information society find their expression in cyberculture, then multimedia art is its most perfect articulation. Digital – interactive, web, global, immersed in the space of socio-cultural practices – art ideally represents, expresses and also analyses the nature of cyberculture, being both – constructive and critical towards it. It serves as a laboratory where research experiments are carried out not only on new technologies but also – and perhaps most of all – on new social relations created or supported by the technologies”[4].

Before we begin to discuss digital aesthetics, we should probably move back to the most basic questions: what digital art is and how it differs from analogue art, because if we acknowledge that the digital does exist, then, obviously, the analogue paradigm should be, in a dialectical way, placed at the opposite pole.

It is worth remembering that the very “digital art enables analogue processes occurring in nature being represented digitally”[5]. The words come from Peter Weibl’s manifesto published as a supplement to the catalogue of Ars Electronica festival in 1984 (nineteen eighty for) – as the author himself claims the term “digital art”[6] was used in the text for the first time. The very term is highly ambiguous, all the more that it has undergone a specific form of evolution: from the commonly used at the turn of the 60s. and 70s  term computer art, through multimedia, hypermedia art, to digital art and cyberart.

At the same time, the term new media art has been quite commonly used and the term digital media art – less frequently. Christiane Paul, taking into account those terminological ambiguities, writes: “The notion of “digital art” is used to such diverse objects and artistic practices that it is impossible to define it by a homogenous set of aesthetic terms”[7]. A little further Paul explains the reasons for such definitional problems: “Defining and categorizations might be helpful in identifying basic attributes of a given medium. Yet, at the same time, they pose a threat of constructing pre-definitional limitations in explaining and understanding of works of art, especially when they are constantly developed as it is in the case of digital art”[8].

Digitalisation

One more aspect emerging from the discussions on digital media art should be added to the above doubts – a fundamental issue of the basic distinction between the art which uses digital technology as a specific tool for creating traditional (analogue) artistic objects such as photography, sculpture or music, and the art which uses digital technology as an immanent feature of a medium, that is the art which is created, stored and presented in a digital format. And, moreover, which uses possibilities of interaction, co-participation and co-creation.

I ask myself the next question: about the role of an aesthetician in defining and recognizing digital art – ergo, while giving consideration to the object of my reflections which is still in statu nascendi. I try, simultaneously, to take into account the specificity of the aesthetic reflection whose subjects are the activities and objects realized by means of digital technologies. The state of being formed has a double meaning here: firstly – an “object” of digital art is in the state of permanent formation, it never really undergoes “coagulation”, and secondly – broadly defined digital art is in the process of being born, constituted, in the process of searching its own territory – as it would be a simplification to locate it solely in cyberspace.

Contrary to appearances, the subject of digital aesthetics within the cybercultural discourse is not so obvious. I use the phrase “contrary to appearances” because one may say that the situation is very clear in this case: everything that has a binary digital record as its ontological basis that was positively verified by an aesthetician or a theoretician – as including artistic and aesthetic values – is digital art. However, it seems that the obviousness of such a statement is an undue and highly unjustified simplification.

Digital media art is an art which makes an interface a basic category not only in the sense of a “medium” enabling contact between the user and (most often) the virtual work of art, yet also one of the fundamental categories of a new, media oriented aesthetics. The case of database which has become one of the most important issues of media aesthetics is similar. An ideal proof of the significant role of a database as a research problem can be found in a joint publication (edited by Victoria Vesna) which, in a sense, proclaims a new scientific discipline – “database  aesthetics”[9].

Besides, it has its continuation on the web where one may find additional publications and, most of all, various artistic (although not only) projects using databases as a fundamental constitutive element and, at the same time, exploring the issues of the need to constantly develop methods of selection and material organization in the age of information flood of data[10]. Clearly, it is the Internet which is a special sphere and medium predestined (pridestend) to use database strategies. As Victoria Vesna, an artist and theoretician, and an editor of the above mentioned publication, writes: “Artists using Internet as a medium are particularly interested in creating new kind of aesthetics which encompasses not only aspects of visual representation, but also invisible aspects of organization, searching for information and navigating them”[11].

Aesthetic computing

An important subdiscipline of aesthetic studies has emerged recently. It is treated as a kind of centre of various trends and explorations within digital media aesthetics. It is “aesthetic computing”. Although it may seem that “aesthetic computing” is a phenomenon strictly connected with the digital breakthrough and with the emergence of the world wide web which redefined the whole range of phenomena resulting from the expansion of technoculture based on the domination of a metamedium – the computer – one  has to be aware of the fact that those processes began in the late ‘60s.

Since 2002 workshops devoted to the aesthetic computing problematics initiated by Paul Fishwick, Christa Sommerer and Roger Malina have been organized in German Dagstuhl (near Wadern in Germany). Dagstuhl is an academic institution where Leibniz Center for Informatics is located. Early computer art, while studying the possibilities of hardware, software and cybernetics, brought about the transgression of boundaries between cognitive and material aesthetics. The participants of the above mentioned meeting and later research and publishing defined aesthetic computing in a brief manifesto. They referred to artistic practice and theoretical concepts deriving from the area of new media art research. Generally speaking, they emphasized the question of “applying theory and artistic practice to aesthetic computing”[12].

Writing the preface to the joint publication on the issues which was the outcome of the above described initiative, Paul Fishwick tries to outline a program for the future in the form of three fundamental questions faced by aesthetics attempting to apply traditional categories and new aesthetic notions to digital art.

1. Firstly, a question of expanding traditional definitions of aesthetics to include the context of issues connected with digitality.

2. Secondly, the question of the role of values, subjectivity and emotions in mathematics and computer science as the elements which enable sustaining the balance between the form and function – needs to be addressed.

3. And thirdly, we need to answer the question on how effective social structures – where artists, designers, mathematicians and computer scientists could co-work directly or by means of web – can be created[13].

Paul Fishwick has been working on methodological and theoretical basis of an aesthetically oriented research on phenomena included in the sphere of art as the result of using computer technologies, but also of activities transgressing art which, however, can be analysed from the perspective of “broadened aesthetics”. Programming is the example of such an activity. Using various programming languages programmers apply their own “handwriting” while creating algorithmic structures which have aesthetic potential themselves. Simultaneously, the aesthetic dimension of programming is revealed at the level of the effects of specific procedures application and it can be easily observed, for example, when we watch two- or three-dimensional data visualizations. Moreover, instead of programming art we should frequently refer to art of programs whose visual architecture may enchant us with their beauty. And I am not talking only about fractals, although evoking them in such a context should be obvious[14].

Thus aesthetic computing seems to be the area of inter- and transdisciplinary confluence of different research procedures, disciplines, particular issues and attempts at a global perception of cyberart functioning in cyberculture. To be more specific. To globally perceive a certain type of cyberart which is based, in the creative process, on algorithmic patterns. Cyberart which uses the achievements of programming languages. Applies mathematical and computer procedures as systems of tools facilitating creation, or conditioning it. As tools which constitute basic equipment of artists who cooperate in different areas with representatives of numerous scientific, computer and cognitive disciplines.

Endnotes


[2] See: Charles Alexander Moffat, The Work of Art in the Age of Digital Reproduction,

http://www.arthistoryarchive.com/arthistory/contemporary/The-Work-of-Art-in-the-Age-of-Digital-Reproduction.html

[4] Ryszard W. Kluszczyński: Od web.studies do antropologii nowej wizualności. Współczesne badania nad cyberkulturą, „Kultura Współczesna” 2005, no 1, p. 38-39.

[5] Peter Weibel,  On the History and Aesthetics of the Digital Image, [in:] Timothy Druckrey with Ars Electronica (eds.), Ars Electronica. Facing the Future. A Survey of Two Decades, Cambridge MA, London 1999,  p. 51.

[6] See: Peter Weibel, Ars Electronica. Between Art and Science, [in:] Hannes Leopoldseder, Christine Schöpf, Gerfried Stocker (eds.), Ars Electronica 79-99. 20 Jahre Festival für Kunst, Technologie und Gesellschaft, Linz 1999, p. 72.

[7] Christiane Paul, Digital Art, Thames & Hudson, London 2003, p. 7.

[8] Ibidem, p. 8.

[9] See: Victoria Vesna (ed.), Database Aesthetics. Art in the Age of Information Overflow, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, London 2007.

[11] Victoria Vesna, Introduction, [in:] Victoria Vesna (ed.), Database Aesthetics…, op. cit., p. XIII.

[12] Paul Fishwick, Aesthetic Computing Manifesto, „Leonardo” 2003, vol. 34, no 2, p. 256. In the later introduction to the collective work author states that aestheitic computing should take the such issues as: 1: presentation of programs and data structures taking into account the cultural specificities; 2: inclusion of artistic methods to typical activities using computers, such as scientific visualization and 3: improve emotional and cultural level of interaction with the computer.  See: Paul Fishwick, An Introduction to Aesthetic Computing, [in:] Paul Fishwick (ed.),  Aesthetic Computing, op. cit., p. 6.

[13] Paul Fishwick (ed.), Aesthetic Computing, op. cit., p. XVI.

[14] About „programming as a form of art” says interesting Roman Verostko, one of the pionieers of the algorithmics art, i.e. “algorist”, which use to the cyberartist  who use in their work algorithms. See: Roman Verostko, Algorithms and the Artist, http://www.verostko.com/alg-isea94.html. A kind of summary of many years of experiences (theoretical and practical) of this artist ist the text: Epigenetic Art Revisited: Software as Genotype, [in:] Gerfried Stocker, Christine Schöpf (eds.), Code – The Language of Our Time, Hatje Cantz, Osterfildern-Ruit 2003, p. 156-161.

 

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