T.E. Batten: Some Personal Remarks regarding Electronic Audio-Visual Media.
Written for
Synthesis: Visual Arts in the Electronic Culture
International UNESCO Seminar Offenbach/Main (FRG) 6 - 11 December 1987
1. Tool vs. Medium
When discussing Audio-Visual Media in relation to creative processes it is advisable to distinguish between the use of these techniques as a tool or as a medium.
This distinction is necessary because the two concepts, although apparently similar, are in fact contradictory to each other:
The characterics of a tool include simplicity of operation in order to perform a well defined task quickly and efficiently.
In cybernetic terms, a tool is an unidirectional process with a specific input and output. A medium, in contrast, has an element of feedback so that (with respect to Marshall Mcluhan) one can say that the medium is at least part of the message. Certainly during the creative process this element of feedback is so strong that one could concider the artist as being a mediator in a dialog between the raw idea and the medium through which the idea is transmuted to its final form. Obviously, a medium requires a certain degree of complexity in order to permit the subtle ranges of aesthetic choice which are so vital to the artistic product.
Tools and media are therefore contradictory to each other at the levels of simplicity vs. complexity, transmission vs. dialog and certainty vs. uncertainty (in respect to the form of the end product).
The distinction between tool and medium may also be related to the distinction between designer and artist. For the designer a pencil being a tool and for the artist a medium. As an artist, it is obvious that I approach audio-visual techniques as a medium and not as a tool.
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2. Esotericism vs. Commercialism
The distinction between tool and medium is also important because it is essential that the artist is capable of trancending the limitations imposed by computers (and other electronic systems) as concrete tools, in order to make an individual distilation of the underlying concepts and to weld these into a personal medium.
Just as the camera (as visual nestor of the traditional audio-visual technology) has had to be liberated from its role as objective seeing machine, so the computer (as nestor of the modern audio-visual technology) has to be liberated from its image as an objective logical machine.
However, the social-historic development of the artistic use of the camera does appear to be different to that of the computer, at least in respect to the transition from esoteric activity to commercial exploitation:
One could place photografic equipment symbolically on an axis ranging from the "Instamatic" to (in the case of complex studio instalations) beyond the "Hasselblad". For ease of description the Hasselblad can be labeled 'esoteric' and the Instamatic 'commercial'. A continual bidirectional interaction between esoteric and commercial then becomes apparent.
Proffesional photographers develop their esoteric practices, some of which (for example: coloured filters, zoom lenses etc.) will be commercialised and some of which (due to their complexity, over-specialization or downright inneficiency) will remain esoteric. At the other end of the scale, the amateur photographers also base their fotographic activities on equipment which satisfies both their individual sence of comfort regarding the complexity of the cameras operation and their budget. Significant, is the relationship between freedom of expression, complexity of operation and increased financial investment. Also significant is that both amateur and proffessional have a natural tendency to move towards the esoteric, which in the case of the proffessional is financed by commercialisation of their own esoteric activities.
The esoteric development in the photography is also being fed by the availability of new techniques via commercialisation of esoteric activites in other areas such as optics, chemistry, fine mechanics, electronics and even ephemeral social changes in political power and fashionable thought. As long as this process continues there will be a living photographic tradition but as soon as commercialism catches up with esotericism the game is finished and the tradition is dead.
Of course the destruction of esotericism by commercialism is the traditional dread of the leftwing intellectual, but maybe it is neccesary for us to realize that if wolves did not eat sheep then the sheep must either practice birth control or die of over population and starvation. Clearly, survival implies a dynamic interaction between opposing forces and not the destruction of one by another. It seems that ecological economics based on long-term symbiotic survival must be developed to replace the present economic policies based on short-term profit and destructive p2 domination.
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3. The Demise of Vision in Computer Images
The discovery by the computer industry that a picture is worth a thousand words and the demand for visually sophisticated electronic games has made computer graphics exceptionally attractive commercially.
However, when we look in ecological terms at the development of the creative use of the computer visualy we see that the previously existing esoteric tradition of computer (and video) graphics appears (for whatever reason) to be almost completely commercialised. The experimental techniques of the early pioneers are now freely available for modest prices in the local store, clubhouse or via the modem. The wolves have eaten all the sheep and now the wolves themselves are in danger. The electronic medium has been reduced to a tool and electronic artists instead of being inovators have become followers of technical fashion. The electronic audio-visual art tradition appears to be almost dead, and to make matters worse this is happening just as the electronic post-industrial revolution is developing a dramatic and visible momentum.
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4. An Ontological Medium for an Ontological Dialogue
Implicit in my highly simplified demonstrative sketch of the interaction between commercialism and esotericism in the living photographic tradition is the view that the creative process is a series of grammatical operations within a non-verbal language.
A formal defence of this view (coward as I am) will not be given at this moment. Hopefully it is self-evident that the artist is concerned with developing procedures (which generate artistic statements which reflect the procedures which generated them) and that the artistic result (as statement or procedure) has influence on the subsequent procedures used by the artist and (hopefully) sub-sections of the community of which the artist is a part of. Handing over of money being the most basic of subsequent procedures expected!
Procedures are rule based activities, and by viewing these sets of rules as 'grammers' we develop a linguistic approach which hopefully will enable us to move toward an effective meta-language, which in turn will generate new knowlege by permitting comparasons between apparently unrelated phenomena by a common means of expression. However, it must not be forgotten that grammers are based on ontological assumptions regarding the objects to be manipulated within the grammer, and therefore no comparason (or statement) can be made without hidden ontological assumptions implicit in the language used. Plato was right. Abstract structures do have political implications!
Of course its not very original to say that artists develop their own languages and that these languages can be politically and economically exploited -the Italian renaissance is the classic example -but the twentieth century art tradition has a dangerous tendency towards narcissic introspection and the contempory yuppie culture has almost succeded in reducing art to a purely decorative function. So it appears neccesary to restate the fact that art is primarily an ontological dialogue, that art history is the documentation and explication of this dialogue, that cultural identity is defined in terms of shared ontologies and that art plays an important role in shapeing the communal ontology.
The real disaster is that not only is art being sanitized, deodorized, de-esotericised and commercialised (from inside and outside) precisely at a time of great social change when the need for ontological research and development is great, but also the prime agent of this cultural disruption (the computer) is, paradoxically, in essence an ontological machine.
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5. Universal Objectivity vs. Interfaced Subjectivity
Once upon a time, it might have been difficult to view the physical embodyment of traditional western logic as an ontological machine. Europeans (like the British) just don't do that kind of thing! We have the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth -and you can't earn money with ontology and othersuch philosphical rubbish.
Nowadays we know better! Scientific American (September 1984) describes the computer as a "virtual machine" (p.58), "a hierarchy of abstractions" (p.89) and a "language machine" (p.91). Apparently, these are not academic-esoteric fantasies because commercially its the ontology that sells the computer. Sequential, relational or semantic data-base? Unix or MS-dos? Fortran, Lisp, Ada, C or Cobal? Wire-frame surface-modelling or ray-traced solid-modelling -you pay your money and take your choice!
In fact it's the user interface of this ontological machine which is killing modern electronic audio-visual art by seducing the art producers, educators and financiers into thinking that the artist doesn't need to understand the machine because the machine understands the artist.
This artistic heresy is all the more tragic when one conciders the potential power of the user interface, not as a concrete tool, but as a conceptual medium for solving contempory problems by translating between the ontologies.
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6. Communication or Conflict
Technically the world is being integrated in a (spiders?) web of instant electronic communication while in politics, art, economics and ecology we seem to be generating nationalism irrationalisim, poverty and disaster. Perhaps we should try to imagine the result of letting these elements loose in a global instant communication netwerk! Concerning the hardware it seems we know all the answers, but concerning the software we appear to know none. If this inballence is not corrected then only the most cynical of commercial activivities (if any) will be able to survive.
But how can wars be planned and initiated when Gorbatchov knows when Reagan sneezes, and Reagan hears what Gorbatchov sings in the bath? Will the West, caught in the grip of the unnacceptable face of capitalism be confronted by the East freed of the unnaceptable face of communism? Can the acceptable faces of both be married, or will their children have unnacceptable faces?
To a certain extent Nationalism, Religious Fundamentalism and Romantic Individualism are understandable reactions against the optimistic post-war dictatorial myth of universal objective rationalism propagated by the traditional electronic media. Few people are able to accept the destruction of their traditional cultural values without getting disorientated -just as no artist can resist the seductive arms of individualism and irrationalism for long, even though they can not survive the isolation and mindlessness to which these eventualy degenerate. Contrary to the traditional scientific ontology of mutualy exclusive opposites, artists have always based their aesthetic systems on subtile equilibria of opositions, none of which would be acceptable in the pure state.
The ability to generate and evaluate new ontologies is essential to the future, it always has been and it always will be. Global survival is also dependant on translation and interaction between co-existing ontologies.
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7. Fashion and Function
In my youth it was fashionable to be pessemistic about the international political and ecological situation. Since the boom in silicon oil, it has become fashionable to become boundlesly optimistic (at least if your rich).
In fact we have no time for such futile games. There is much work to be done and possibly little time. It is not yet certain if the global electronic nervous-system increases international stability or instability.
Nevertheless, we should not panic for we have many advantages:
Modern science has abandoned the concept of universal objective truth and is concerned with translation processes within a nexus of pragmatic descriptions. The concept of user interfacing suggests the possibility of inter-cultural communication without loss of cultural identity. We may be able to remember that commercial exploitation can be a succesful means of propagating esoteric concepts (in a democratic way in an eglatarian economy) and that esoteric conceptual cross-fertilization is an essential pre-condition for commercial activity in a dematerialized society. We have an artistic tradition of sythezising ontologies and we have a conceptual machine capable of simulating almost any ontology we may or may not desire.
We do have to learn to view our activities and the world around us in terms of patterns of linguistic processes, to think in terms of interacting rules instead of isolated objects, to objectively evaluate our ontologies and to realise that the basis for our post-industrial wealth is in fact a modern filosophers stone. True not everything touched by the computer changes immediatly to gold, but the computer does dematerialize material -and once dematerialized, the material becomes free to take on any form the artist, the filosopher, the politician, the businessman or the general wishes.
The new possibilities demand new resposibilities, the result will be a disaster if we develop one without the other. The future is entirely dependant on the credability and creativity of our artists and filosophers. The equipment is available, we must learn how to use it.
T.E. Batten Amsterdam, October 1987