17. Thoughts about interactivity, creativity, authorship, aesthetic theory and new media

               Essay from monitor 48/2000,  December 2000, Haslev, Denmark


Activity and interactivity

In the light of the selection of websites THE DANISH VIDEO ART DATA BANK had to make for Medi@terra Symposium in Athens in November - and in relation to the theme of the Symposium (consult monitor, 47/2000 November) - I would like to refer to a forthcoming book "The Language of New Media" by Lev Manovichass. Associate professor at Department of visual Arts, University of California, San Diego.

In this book Manovich - among other things - is questioning the concept of Interactivity and the claim that a user of an interactive program or website becomes its co-author: that by choosing a unique path through the elements of a work, she supposedly creates a new work. A claim that many websites puts forward.

But - Manovich points out - it is also possible to see the same process in a different way. If, as it is in most cases, a complete work is a sum of all possible paths through its elements, then the user following a particular path (which the user herself choose) only accesses a part of this whole. In other words, the user is only activating a part of the total work that already exists.

The web pages consist of nothing but links to other pages and the user does not add new objects to a corpus, but only selects its subset. And, says Manovich, this becomes a new type of authorship which do not correspond to the modern idea of a creator-genius revolting against it, but it does, however fits perfectly with the logic of advanced industrial and post-industrial societies. In fact, new media is the best available expression of the logic of identity in these societies: choosing values from a number of pre-defined menus.


Authentic creativity and authorship as selection

Lev Manovich also touches on the question of "authentic creativity" and "authorship as selection" in relation to the new digital media, for example the Internet.

He points out / emphasize that the works "are rarely created completely from scratch". The artist makes use of available preconditioned programs/ready-mades/plug-ins to elaborate and manipulate the video or computer/internet pictures: "Put differently, in computer culture authentic creation has been replaced by selection from a menu".

You see this to a steadily increasing degree in video art. Take for example the legendary old Italian video artist and author Gianni Toti whom Medi@terra celebrated with a special Tribute program. Although Toti stated that "there is no such thing as technological art - art is different from technology and I am not interested in tech-nology" he has in his new videos used digital programs/ready-mades/plug-ins to a very extensive high degree. Having once been on a festival jury in Locarno giving Toti a price for some of his earlier videos I somehow feel that the message in his new videos (especially the Gramsci-video) get lost in all the digital elaboration/manipulation. (1)

The problem is of course that few artists are able to "authentic creation" when it comes to computer software/programs. They have to use/relay on the possibilities which the commercially produced "ready-made" ready-to-use media elements under software-programs give them - it means "a selection from a menu" which others have created.

And this, says Manovich, leads to that "computer software "naturalizes" the model of authorship as selection from libraries of pre-defined objects". With authorship as selection the "author puts together an object from the elements which she herself did not create. The creative energy of the author goes into selection and sequencing of elements, rather than into their original design" - and here you might equal "author" with "artist".

As Manovich points out we can already find this model at work with old media. With reference to the film historian Charles Musser he goes back to the old magic lantern slide shows where the exhibitioner, the artist, skillfully arranged a presentation of slides which he bought from the distributors. "This", says Manovich, "is a perfect example of authorship as selection: an author puts together an object from elements which she herself did not create. The creative energy of the author goes into selection and sequencing of elements, rather than into their original design".

Not all modern media arts follow this authorship model but Manovich points to the fact that the technological logic of even analog media strongly supports it: "Stored using industrially manufactured materials such as … magnetic tape, media elements can be more easily copied, isolated and assembled in new combinations. In addition, various media manipulation machines … make the operations of selection and combination easier to perform".

In the history of video art - short as it might be - you come to think of the once so popular "scratch videos" which especially British video artists produced but also Danish artists like Ulrik Al Brask and Franz Pandal. They copied material from national and commercial tv-stations and assembled it in new combinations, very often satirical and/or critical to the original material. Would you say about these artists that their creative energy only "goes into selection and sequencing of elements", they did not create, "rather than into their original design"? I have always thought about these artists as being creative artists like for example Picasso and others working with collage-pictures (but then again the collage-artist of course uses material she has not herself created).

Anyhow Manowich summarizes that although the practice of making media objects from already existing commercial elements already existed with old media "the new media technology further standardizes it and makes it much easier to perform. What before involved scissors and glue now involves simply clicking on "cut" and "paste". And, by incoding the operations of selection and combination into the very interfaces of authoring and editing software, new media "legitimizes" them".

Manovich finds that "the web acts as a perfect materialization of this logic".


Aesthetic and new media

Manovich takes up the problems around the aesthetic and the aesthetic theory in relation to the new media.

Traditionally the concept of aesthetic is related to the concept of an aesthetic object as an object, i.e. as a self-contained structure limited in space and/or time, and this is fundamental to all modern thinking about aesthetics. He maintains, that the attempts of some artists from the 1960s onward to substitute a traditionally defined aesthetic object by other concepts such as "process", "practice" and "concept", only highlights the strong hold of the traditional concept on our cultural imagination.

But he points out that the new digital culture asks us to reconsider the very paradigm of what an aesthetic object is. Is it necessary for the concept of the aesthetics to assume representation? Does art necessary involves a finite object? Can telecommunication between users itself be the subject of an aesthetic? Similarly, can the user’s search for information be understood aesthetically? In short, if a user accessing information and a user telecommunicating with other(s) are as common in computer culture [the emerging digital culture] as a user interacting with a representation, can we expand our aesthetic theories to include these and other coming, new situations? - and should we or should we not?


A "post-modern" phenomenon

Lev Manovich points to the dialectic relationship between the development described above and post-modernism. The development of Graphic User Interface and software like PhotoShop which made this possible and legitimized cut-and-paste logic and media manipulation took place at the same time as contemporary culture became "post-modern". Fredric Jameson characterizes post-modernism as a periodizing concept whose function is to correlate the emergence of new formal features in culture with the the emergence of a new type of social life and new economic order. (2)

And Manovich underlines that for critics like Fredric Jameson it became apparent by the early 1980s that "culture no longer tried to "make it new". Rather, endless recycling and quoting of the past media content, artistic styles and forms became the new "international style" and the new cultural logic of modern society" and he maintains that "rather than assembling more media recordings of reality, culture is now busy re-working, recombining and analyzing the already accumulated media material".

"I my view", says Manovich, "this new cultural condition found its perfect reflection in the emerging computer software of the 1980s" and he goes on, "at the same time, to a large extent it is this software which made post-modernism possible" and this is supported to a great extent by the computer-based tools of the 90s - and here - again - "the Web became the perfect expression of this logic".

"The Language of New Media"

Lev Manovich’s book "The Language of New Media" will be published by The MIT Press in the first part of 2001 (probably March 2001). I had the possibility - and joy -to pre-read the book. I think it is very provocative and should be read by all artists working with the so called "new media".

Torben Soeborg

Post Script 1
After writing this essay I read on the flight back from Athens one of the Danish artist Per Kirkeby’s books. The book is "Flyvende blade. Die Kunst für Alle" [Flying Leaves. The Art for Everyone] from 1974. In one of his "flying leaves" called "An exhibition of pictures" he writes - after talking about a telephoto machine - "I know of course another picture-producing machine, the television which with great speed transmit pictures. This is of course still a picture-machine which is exploited in the most primitive reproducing way both in the one and the other sense. Well, but we have here two rather primitively used machine-ideas and I am far more fascinated by the telephotograph. There are not any special aesthetic dimensions by the one in preference to the other. They are both marked by the same degree of abstraction concerning the picture elements but simply it is that the one, the telephoto, is present quite physical to handle and feel upon. This is a conflict as old as my artistic life and the meeting with fluxus, when and why the ideas need paper and take-and-feel-upon even in its most crude manner to begin to breath at all". (3)

Well, I know this was written back in 1974, but Per Kirkeby is one of the young and very acknowledged and recognized Danish artists (also in other parts of Europe) and he refers to /touches on a problem, a feeling, many people have about art using the new media and a problem you as a "new media artist" has to deal with.

Post Script 2
The references to Lev Manovich’s book is of course only a few "sporadically downstrokes" on some aspects in his book. Per Kirkeby’s remark about television as "a picture machine which is exploited in the most primitive reducing way" reminds me about an earlier essay by Lev Manovich, "Avant-guard as Software" (4), in which he makes an interesting connection between the 1920’s avant-guard and the reproductive use of this by what he calls the new media avant-guard in the 1990’s - the technological development of cultural communications to computer media.

You could think "that finally the avant-guard techniques of the 1920’s will no longer be sufficient and that fundamentally new techniques will start to appear" but the paradox is, maintains Manovich, that "the "computer revolution" does not seem to be accompanied by any significant innovations on the level of communication techniques".

And this claim he argues very convincingly for in the essay. He shows how the techniques invented by the 1920’s artists are embedded in the commands and interface metaphors of today's computer software: What was the avant-guard’s radical aesthetic vision becomes materialized as standard computer techniques by the 1990’s, but he also points out/stresses that the new media avant-guard "is radically different from the old:

The old media avant-guard of the 1920’s came up with new forms, new ways to represent reality and new ways to see the world. The new media avant-guard is about new ways of accessing and manipulating information. Its techniques are hypermedia, databases, search engines, data mining, image processing, visualization, simulation.

The new avant-guard is no longer concerned with seeing or representing the world in new ways but rather with accessing and using in new ways previously accumulated media. In this respect new media is post-media or meta-media, as it uses old media as its primary material."

At the same time he looks at this as an example of a larger logic of post-modernism: "Post-modernism naturalizes the avant-guard; it gets rid of the avant-guard’s original politics and, through repeated use, makes avant-guard techniques appear totally natural … software naturalizes the 1920’s radical communication techniques …"

In short: the avant-guard becomes software. But of course, he point out, "software does not simply adopt the avant-guard techniques without changing them; on the contrary, these techniques are further developed, formalized in algorithms, codified in software, made more efficient and effective".

The forms of the old avant-guard remains the same but how these forms are used change radically. The main task for the new media is to store, process, analyze, access and distribute in the process of dealing with already accumulated information - and as Manovich points out in a review of the "electrolobby" at Ars Electronica 2000 (5) this contrast between form and information is one of the fundamental cultural dimensions that accompanies the shift from modernism to what he calls "informationalism": "What the search for good form was for modernism, information networking is for our society".

"And if the first", he goes on - and this also in my view becomes a comment to Per Kirkeby’s notion about the need of ideas for paper and take-and-feel-upon - "usually resulted in solid objects … the second is by its very nature dynamic, never thickening into something solid and fixed".

And yet the word inFORMation itself implies, says Manovich, that "there is a hidden form-making impulse in information society. Or, at least we can say that information processes often leave material residues. Or, to be more brutal but more honest, that information processes can be forced to leave material forms." The question is if and how this somehow might satisfy Per Kirkeby and his conflict - and with him many others.



(1) Although there seems to be a parallel development "back to the classics" where the artist only makes use of the "old/traditional" video editing with no digital computer based manipulation of the pictures (compare my essay about "Video- og mediakunst: teknologi og tendenser" (Video- and media art: technology and trends) in monitor 43/2000). It is remarkable that such a video, "Behavior Matrices" by the young Danish artist Sophus Ejler Jepsen, got positive remarks on the same Medi@terra Festival where Toti’s highly elaborated/manipulated new videos were screened.

(2) Fredric Jameson: "Postmodernism and Consumer Society" in E. Ann Kaplan (edit): Postmodernism and its Discontents, London & New York, 1988, p. 15

(3) Per Kirkeby: Flyvende blade. Die Kunst für Alle, Copenhagen, Denmark 1974, p. 70

(4) My copy of this essay does not give any clue to when and where it was written and published.

(5) Lev Manovich: INFORMATION AND FORM. Review of electrolobby Ars Electronical 2000, Linz, September 27, 2000