T.E. Batten: Some Personal
Remarks regarding Electronic Audio-Visual Media.
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
Nevertheless, we should not panic for we have many
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