Artware5: Form, research, technology.
Umberto Roncoroni. June 2009
During the last fifteen years a large number of exhibitions, academic events and publications (printed or on the Internet) have been dedicated to digital technologies, new media and digital art. Despite this, the discourse about the aesthetic capabilities of information technology is actually underdeveloped both from a theoretic and artistic point of view. Deeper insight regarding computers, robots, digital video, virtual reality and Internet is still needed. It seems to me that it is uncommon to find, even within artistic exhibitions, really compelling and inspirational ideas and artworks. Many of these projects, with a closer look, reveal submissions to show business and arbitrary or superficial aesthetic foundations. It can be showed, even though curators and artists declarations always seem revolutionary, how so little of this artistic effort reverts into the real and common social and cultural practice. And this is weird considering that ITC can't be called new, because for thirty years society has been, as Negroponte said, digital. It is certainly true that digital technology, old or new, is still obliged to follow different lines of investigation with no chance to forecast which are good or bad. Mistakes and uncertainty are, in this context, paramount. But the real danger is that while we look into closed routes or make mistakes, something happens with greater frequency inside the art system. There exist many deep and covered processes (behind the screen of special effects) that step by step are modifying the ways we create, educate and communicate. There are strong economic and political interests that seek their growth inside technological innovations that are unseen exactly because those that should monitor this, such as artists, are looking elsewhere.
So it's safe to say that no text or artwork deserves the same praise, and that existing pieces of art with committed criticism should and even have to define bad practices. Certainly many criteria and viewpoints exist and have to be considered. One of these is specifically aesthetic and it is the link between digital arts and old aesthetic paradigms that, above all, weaken the development of art in the present tense. A lot of artists that create and communicate with ITC depend, often unconsciously, on romantic or modernist (and often postmodernist) aesthetics. They do not take into proper consideration that the first paradigm that is deconstructed by ITC is the very concept of art and its institutional apparatus, such as galleries, museums, schools and universities. Now, even if a truly digital culture (i.e. a culture that doesn't mimic what already exists in the analog domain) is spreading worldwide thanks to user communities, research projects, and new programming languages (e.g. netArt, blogs, web pages, freeware, etc.), there are few artists that take into account the gap between digital technologies and the existing aesthetic mainstream. And there are few that not only try to discuss it (a practice that, taken alone, cannot escape from the very tradition that is the object of its critique), but to improve and change it. As I see it, the art establishment greatly jeopardizes research for aesthetic and technologic innovation. For this reason it's important to notice that the most critical and innovative digital art comes from contexts that don't belong strictly to the art world, but to computer science, mathematics, engineering, design, architecture, and so on. Each of these provides context that are is committed, culturally and economically, to the art system. It seems that to recognize the new, it is necessary to jump outside our private world (the art world in this case) and look from a different perspective. So far, even if it seems contradictory and paradoxical, this leads to a reformulation of categories like form, beauty and meaning. These are categories that have belonged to the problematics of art from its beginning, and that digital art tends to ignore while shifting the attention to hi-tech gadgetry. It may be that the biggest problem in digital art is precisely in the inverted relationships between form and meaning, with artwork and process that is now embedded into the computational dialectics between hardware and software.
Mario Costa, a well-known Italian philosopher, coined the term "aesthetic research" to define the scientific, technologic and artistic domain described above. Briefly considered, aesthetic research in Costa's opinion doesn't refer only to art, because it should as a primary task clearly criticize show business, the art market, and the media simulacra of the artist. This is difficult because it'snobvious that the art system desn't undersatnd digital art correctly, ignores its foundations, and delivers a digital artwork that is nothing more that a black box that is forgotten or lost when the show is over. The paradigm reversal implicit in the concept of aesthetic research should take place, as a consequence, in the life of the "artist" himself rethinking his relationships with society and culture. The most difficult task for those who seek to execute "art" (aesthetic research) professionally is understanding exactly which are art concrete applications, and finding working strategies that allow the execution of "art" in new ways, e.g. without paying tribute to collectors, museums, curators and international artistic events. Nowadays, almost every artist without important institutional/commercial success makes his living teaching. Others find their way into the communication industry and show business such as TV, movies, animation, and videogames. Still others pursue some kind of media activism and seek political engagement. Others are designers or craftsmen. Each one of these strategies has been well known to artists since the invention of photography, and thus is not news from the digital revolution and, moreover, is not free from restrictions and problems. Teaching is considered as a necessary activity to survive, but its true aesthetic meaning is not understood (Artists think that time spent in the classroom is subtracted from their artistic development, but the case is exactly the opposite). Media activism is really important, but art here is not a true necessity and many times activism is just a trick to feed the ego of the artist and recycle the art system. In the mass communications and entertainment industries there are very interesting projects, but there is also a lack of critical and theoretic thought, and such thought is of paramount importance to aesthetic research and the search for new forms and languages. Hi-tech research often makes gadgets where new meaning and aesthetic value is only on the surface. So we must say that to deal correctly with aesthetic research we should approach these domains together and at the same time. This is just as in the Renaissance when, even if to a different degree, to be an artist meant being a scientific researcher, an engineer, a philosopher and a communicator. The heights reached by Renaissance art was due to the capacity of its practitioners, not at all always geniuses, to work with interdisciplinary skills. Today, digital technologies offer the artist an efficient set of tools to work in this complex way. Software is research into scientific and technologic domains, but at the same time it is also a communication medium and a creative and pedagogic instrument. And, thanks to the World Wide Web, digital artwork can reach the mass audience that historically was an exclusive property of press, cinema and television. The convergence of technology, knowledge, and media needs a huge and coordinated theoretical effort, artistic investigation and hi-tech projects. And everything done with information technology depends entirely on software that, thanks to its digital nature, can be created by distributed, parallel and interactive processes. Looking at the selected examples of aesthetic research in Artware5, we can see that the artworks are open, emergent and interdisciplinary because they are the result of, or they are themselves, generative and interactive processes. So I believe that a standing point of aesthetic research (the new artistic paradigm) is that to be art is a goal. It is a quality that we can find at the end of aesthetic research, but not a framework installed as its metaphysical foundation. Finally, we can also understand that the problem of the practical function of art can't be postponed. For this reason architecture, which plays a major role in this Artware edition, is a discipline that has a lot to teach to other art forms. And I want to stress again that in all cases aesthetic research is inter- and multidisciplinary, in fact, it uses many different kinds of knowledge and melts different epistemologies.
Form On the other hand, the risk of this theoretic, technological, multidisciplinary and multimedia work is the blurring of the aesthetic research field into a galaxy of activities that, in the best case, only marginally touch the art domain (And this even without a clear understanding of its actual meaning). In the worst case, the work will completely move into a different domain. But I think that aesthetic research, because it is aesthetic and not social, political, or scientific, claims its proper and individual domain. This is a domain that, even if is defined as open, has quite precise boundaries and a theoretic and operative framework that is specifically artistic. In other words, there is something that must be taken into consideration to allow the specific domain of art to develop properly, even without figuring out what art will be in the future. This element is form and beauty. But what does exactly mean to say that form and beauty are the true foundations of aesthetic research? To begin with, we have to allow that the concept of form itself has widely expanded, and not only as a consequence of scientific and technologic progress. Beauty and order are not decorative and superficial, nor are they confined to the domain of perception. Because with form, beauty, and order we don't just mean the external aspect of things, but the formative and poetic process itself. So the concept of form includes certainly the polishing of an artistic artifact, but, most important of all, its generative process and its epistemological and technological apparatus. The formative and poetic action does not end in an image, a print or a video, but stays alive in the interactive design process, in the technology architecture, and in the permanent theoretical investigation. Creating form also implies a fundamental link with scientific knowledge, thanks to the properties of digital language, simulations, and software. But I want to say that scientific knowledge doesn't respond adequately to the problematic magnitude of form taken as the starting point of these notes on aesthetic research. As Costa claimed, aesthetic research includes beauty and form just because they link with science and technology. Nevertheless, we can rescue the specific value of form, beauty, and communication. Knowledge, understanding, and education, thanks to mathematical models and simulations, are built around symbols, writing, images and rhetoric. Because of this, 3D data visualization and virtual reality, for instance, are both new scientific and artistic languages. And, as computer science guru Donald Knuth used to say, beauty and communication are very important for information technologies, because they are developed using distributed, interactive, multi-author processes that interchange tools, data, metadata, codes and knowledge. So focusing on form doesn't necessarily mean that we fall into decorative embellishment. If aesthetic investigation is linked with beauty, as we noted above, it is automatically connected with creativity, identity, and culture.
It should be self-evident that the design, development, and production of the huge set of tasks and media that constitutes aesthetic research challenges the researcher/artist not only intellectually, but also ethically, politically and socially. Making digital art does not consist of making noises or new strange 3D forms by randomly playing with physical computing and algorithms. As we said, generative form and order are avenues of authentic aesthetic research. Artware, in contrast to many digital art exhibitions in which chaos seems to justify almost everything, is focused on form. The artists that present their projects to the Peruvian public clearly show that form is not a difficulty or a restriction, and that it is possible to take a pluralistic approach where form can be used for different applications. And there is more. Form can be static or dynamic, procedural, generative or interactive, but by all means there is commitment to original research, knowledge and communication, and to creativity and its educational development. For instance, the focus on software, programming and innovative use of common software applications is evident in almost every one of these artworks. All the artists in this Artware edition work with their own technology and accept multiple and parallel tasks such as architecture, linguistic experimentation, and teaching. Art emerges here from the intertwining of real problems. For this very reason the invitation to international artists wasn't intended to impose a model or a paradigm, but rather to stimulate and develop original knowledge and technology that, above all, can maintain cultural meaning and identity. The chance to be unique, original and different is precisely what ITC, if badly or improperly introduced, puts into jeopardy.
I invite the public to look at this artistic research deeply, and to bypass the sensual beauty that arises from their technological virtuosity even if these effects are overwhelming. Approach these images and videos as portals to discover what lays behind the unknown that each artist risked challenging. If the artworks achieved the goal of captivating their attention, the public will decide their artistic value, or, their status as unfinished or yet to be completed research. But even if the latter is the case, considering the difficulties, the problems, and the risks honestly taken by these artists, we cannot consider them as bad or negative results.