DROPPING SCIENCE: ART & TECHNOLOGY REVISITED 2.0
by Renée Green © 1995
One would be hardpressed not to find upon opening
any form of print media, or when switching on a TV or radio, some
story or advertisement which refers in some way to the wonders
of new technologies. Here is a typical week's fare: In Time
magazine is a cover story entitled "Onward Cyber Soldiers,"
in the technology section can be found "Bullish on Netscape,"
in addition to a "cyperspace"(sic) report which asks
"How good is the Microsoft Network?" Newsweek's
cover sports a bulging-bellied cigar-toting Mickey Mouse and reads,
"Disney's World, A $19 billion deal to create a new global
media empire," while inside it's "cyberscope" section
contains brief techno updates. The german Focus magazine
featured the article: "Traumwelten im Computer: Virtual Reality
für jedermann," illustrated by an image of a family
appearing to be in a virtual living room with a virtual pet, playing
virtual games in the air, all facing a large floating video screen.
And lastly in Interzone, an SF and fantasy magazine, a
recent BBC 1 TV show called "Bugs," is described as,
"The Avengers transported from the space age to the
cyberspace era" in which some stock ideas are trotted out
such as " . . . the notion that machines are morally neutral,
that it is people who design and use them for good and evil."
It then follows that amidst this inescapable web
of fascination which seems to extend further each day that the
art industry, wishing to be in tandem with the times, also participates
in the general enthusiasm. In both entertainment and art industries
a recurring attitude can be detected which echos that of the "Bugs"
producers in their attempt to diffuse cybertechnophobia: "[T]his
stuff is FUN! and we have to learn to use it because the bad guys
already have." But in the words of typical cyberrhetoric,"
how to navigate one's way through it?"
Of course there are increasing numbers of magazines,
books and columns to assist one in sorting through the technosphere.
Many of them embrace what the future may hold. A cartoon comes
to mind of a bloodshot bug-eyed driver sufferering from highway
hypnosis tightly gripping a steering wheel, a road zombie numbed
by the rapid force of motion and scopic repetition. The most common
metaphors used in describing these technologies are spatial and
visual, usually implying speedy movement - driving, navigating,
surfing - although browsing implies possible leisure. All present
an image of being ensconced in a machine which exceeds human movement
and computational capacity and from within which it is possible
"[Ernest] Mandel had proposed three economic
revolutions governed by revolutions in power
technology: the steam engine of 1848, the rise of electricity
and the combustion engine in the late nineteenth century, and
most recently (since the 1940s), the development of nuclear and
electronic technologies." (Terminal Identity, Scott Burkatman,
What exactly is meant by the term "new technologies"?
A major distinguishing factor from "old technologies"
is the increased potential for a larger number of people to have
access to a means for accumulating, producing and distributing
what has become known as information. The possibility for this
radical shift came about when technologies which had previously
been the domain of specialists, like video and audio recording
technologies, computer technologies and the Internet became available
to the lay public. With relatively limited means a wider range
of people became able to create versions of their reality using
camcorders and a vast array of audio equipment, which they own
and operate, as well as personal computers which enable them to
use computer programs ranging from audio samplers to desktop publishing
software. Individuals or small groups can now on their own make
digital audio recordings or produce publications. Add to this
Internet access, which technically means that these new producers
could communicate with even more and more people and even build
up an electronic distribution network. America Online advertisments
appear on TV with the frequency and urgency reminiscent of ads
for mailorder kitchen technology of the past ("It slices,
it dices, it's Vegematic!") to remind viewers that right
in their own homes they can have access to the wonderful information
world which can provide them with new friends and activities and
possibly new intelligence.
There's been a mad rush to develop and exploit the
Internet and digital technologies. The consequences are global,
although it is estimated that only 20% of the world's population
has telephone access. We are told again and again that "the
brave new world" is here. But to be fully operable within
this exciting place, which is described with euphoria and anxiety
as both the wild west and an ideal democracy, you need some money
or at least a credit card.
The gold rush feeling - quick money for the adventurous
in the frontier, get it while the getting's good - seemed pretty
apparent when Netscape's stocks rapidly increased in value. The
gains possible from that investment became jeopardized by recent
reports of the Net's lack of security as was reported in the October
11, 1995 New York Times article, "Discovery of Internet
Flaws is Setback for On-Line Trade." (John Markoff) The speedily
expanding markets may have to go on hold and navigating may become
more militaristic and paranoic. It is stated:
"That such security flaws exist is not surprising
in a system designed originally as a scientific experiment. But
the recent rush to the Internet by companies seeking to exploit
its commercial possibilities has obscured the fact that giving
the system a new purpose has unearthed fundamental problems that
could well put off sure commerical viability for years."
Crimes on greater scales than before imaginable could
be committed: "The crucial difference in the proposed Internet
commerce systems was that for the first time it would be relatively
simple for a criminal to collect hundreds or thousands of credit
card numbers. Then a thief could use each credit card only one
time, making detection much more difficult," says Berkeley
professor of computer science Eric Brewer. This on top of viruses
to worry about.
But on the same front page was an article about Bill
(Microsoft) Gate's purchase of Bettmann Photo Archive. Similar
to Ted Turner's purchase of the rights to films of the past Gates
will now be in a position to digitize an encyclopedic range of
photos taken throughout this century which can be resold on an
even larger scale than Bettmann was ever able to achieve. The
aims are idealistic but the bottom line is the bottom line: "The
ideal of this electronic conversion is to democratize art and
scholarship, enabling people who could never travel to the Library
of Congress or the Hermitage to sample their intellectual treasures,
and to preserve aging pictures and documents for posterity."
("Huge Photo Archive Bought by the Chairman of Microsoft,"
Steve Lohr, New York Times, October 11, 1995) All well and good,
but the attitude expressed by A. Lin Neumann during a trip to
Asia is bound to emerge: "Well, fuck Bill Gates. We want
the software and we want it now. The real stuff is overpriced."
(A. Lin Neumann, "Information Wants to Be Free But This Is
Ridiculous," pp.88-93, Wired, October 1995)
One of the striking features of discussions about
the "new technologies" is the urgency with which they
are discussed from the political "left" to the "right,"
from grassroots organizations to government think tanks. The notion
of being "on the brink" of some phenomenal change is
one impetus to these numerous discussions. But what might be the
unconscious drives behind this idea? Is this desire affected by
the coming millenium or is it a form of hubris which often proves
to be the fatal attribute of knowledge seekers from Faust to Strangelove,
in science lore and elsewhere, or is it spurred by the curiosity
which compels one to open a Pandora's box? Is it a compulsion
to find the Holy Grail or the Key to All Knowledge? Or is it fueled
by a lust for new markets, the war over constituencies or a combination
of all of the above?
Despite the fact that the year 2000 is steadily approaching
is it possible that the current techno craze is so historically
unique? Perhaps a brief look at previous moments of 20th century
technological fascination, specifically in relationship to art
and the forms of its emergence in particular ideological climates
might be helpful.
While it is too vast an endeavour in this brief space
to recount in detail this history, for which there is ample documentation,
the listing which follows is meant to give an indication of the
breadth of attempts made during this century to think about art
and science together. As a way of beginning to imagine the ramifications
science has had on every field including art it's useful to remember
that scientific thinking at the beginning of the twentieth century
underwent a paradigmatic shift when classical physics was replaced
by atomic theory, as well as the subsequent discoveries which
made it necessary to reaccess the concept of the "natural
world." The reaccessment sparked by these shifts has continued
and includes a questioning of the primacy of scientific authority,
a point to which I'll return. I've chosen to compare some of the
ideas circulating in the sixties and seventies with some of the
ideas which are circulating now as a way to examine what might
be different about the current excitment with technology and what
might resemble that earlier moment.
Marga Bijvoet in "How Intimate Can Art and Technology
Really Be?: A Survey of The Art and Technology Movement of the
Sixties" provides a useful description of the shifts in artist's
thinking which occured in response to scientific changes. although
she doesn't stress the historical context within which these designated
movements occurred. So when she mentions the Futurists's fascination
with speed, the Surrealists's eerie examinations of unconscious
relations to machines as well as the Constructivists's attention
to "new materials (such as steel, glass and plastics) but
also, more importantly, to a consideration of the broader implications
of industrial technologies for society and the future role and
function of art," it is left up to the reader to imagine
under what broader circumstances (such as war, economic depression
and national affinities) these practices emerged. (p. 16, Culture,
Technology and Creativity in the Late Twentieth Century, ed.
Philip Hayward, 1990; London, John Libbey)
A statement dated 1930 from Georges VanTogerloo bears
an uncanny resemblance to later and even current aspirations of
". . . already we see art disengaging itself
from a quasi-philosophical artiness to become more and more a
science and form at one with a new society. (Do not confuse this
with utilitarian art.) But the field of action for the artist
is not open yet. The artist is still condemned to exhibit art
as an object: art is still part of the old organisation. But since
this organisation cannot persist forever, it must one day cede
its place to an organisation better adapted to the present."
(p. 17, ibid.)
Bijvoet goes on to describe what was called 'Kineticism'
and the Kinetic movement of the Fifties and Sixties from which
Frank Popper discerned three strands: Op(tical) Art, Machines
and Mobiles and Lightcinetics. While a movement from the mechanical
into the electronic age can be noted in these works the most advanced
technology then available wasn't used.
Another shift could be detected during the sixties
when what's described as a "systems-aesthetic" emerged.
It is interesting to note how the discussions concerning art practices
echo those suggested by theories relating to the then new electronic
and computer technologies as espoused by Marshall McLuhan, Buckminster
Fuller and Norton Wiener. The term "dematerialised works"
began to gain in usage and these represented materials which were
not "precious," but instead suggested transience - plastics,
video, acrylics and technologies employing synthesizers, computers,
electronics. Bijvoet notes that these materials and techniques
also represented "progress," which is again echoed in
current technology discussions. Rauschenberg's statement exemplifies
the urgency I previously mentioned, intertwined with an Enlightenment
notion of progess:
"It is no longer possible to by-pass the whole
area of technology. . . We can't afford to wait. We must force
a relationship on technology in order to continue and we must
move quickly. The most positive thing I can say is that technology
does not lead us back into history - but advances us into the
unknown." (p.25, ibid.)
NOTES - CIRCULATING THOUGHTS ON SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY
OF THE 60S AND 70S TODAY: ROBERT SMITHSON'S TIMELY CONTEMPLATIONS,
GENE YOUNGBLOOD'S EXPANDED CINEMA
"While the grandly utopian pronouncements of the New Frontier have ebbed to nothing, the scope of technological development that had been initiated in an era of Cold War expansionism continues unabated."
(p. 3, Terminal Identity, Scott Burkatman)
Exhaustion in the wake of the Space Age echos the entropy artist Robert Smithson describes in some of his writings. There now exist computer screens which are stared into, brought into beds if they are laptops and gazed at until sleep comes to cause a break in the continual staring at fragments of information. These resemble the movie screens he imagined some future viewer staring into trance-like while non-narrative films ran continuously, the viewer's body remaining inert before the screen, the movie continuing even while the viewer is sleeping.
( "A Cinematic Atopia," The Writings of
Robert Smithson, ed. Nancy Holt, pp. 105-108)
Smithson's writings seem almost as prophetic as science
fiction can be with his descriptions of non-sites and mappings
of these territories which recall the used up land resources or
tangles of reflective glass, metal and plastic one might come
across in a J.G. Ballard novel. The described monuments aren't
made to last. Entropy discussions of the past were on a par with
the popularity of the current cyberspace discussions, time and
space being prevalent features of both discussions. One of the
main differences though between how spaces such as those Smithson
describes and how cyberspace is described is in their ambulatory
aspects. He stresses inertia, while often cyberspace is described,
as I mentioned earlier, as a navigable space, albeit the operator
is usually sitting still, moving only fingertips and otherwise
appearing to be a zombie or a being in which boundaries between
human and machine are blurred, in other words a cyborg. This prevalence
of cyborgs (especially since Donna Haraway's articulation in "The
Cyborg Manifesto" is another one of the differences which
distinguishes the early 1970s from the present. The desire for
this meshing is described by phenomenologist Don Ihde as pervasive:
"I want the transformation that technology allows,
but . . . I want it in a way that it becomes me," but he
further argues that: "such a desire both secretly rejects
what technologies are and overlooks the transformational effects
which are necessarily tied to human-technological relations. This
illusory desire belongs equally to pro- and antitechnology interpretations
of technology." (Burkatman, p.5)
"Art as radar acts as "an early alarm system," as it were, enabling us to discover social and psychic targets in lots of time to prepare to cope with them. This concept of the arts as prophetic, contrasts with the popular idea of them as mere self-expression. If art is an "early warning system," to use the phrase from World War II, when radar was new, art has the utmost relevance not only to media study but to the development of media controls."
(Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media, p.,
Despite some of the similarities in terms of aspiration,
such as increased global communications, those (1960s and 1970s)
were very different times. The Cold War was still on and Sputnik's
orbit was in recent memory and provided a catalyst for NASA experimentation
and various educational incentives. The U.S. wanted to maintain
the cutting edge on technology and thus the embrace of Marshall
McLuhan made sense as well as did the funding the arts then received.
A prophet of the new electronic age was needed. In the U.S. the
country was still reeling from the Vietnam War, student revolts,
the civil rights movement, black nationalism, the assassinations
of charismatic leaders and a Nixon administration. The recession
hadn't hit yet, but the "Summer of Love" had. Gene Youngblood
outlines his notion of an expanded cinema as being the equivalent
of an expanded consciousness. The year is 1970:
"So I call it the Paleocybernetic Age: an image
of a hairy, buckskinned, barefooted atomic physicist with a brain
full of mescaline and logarithms, working out the heuristics of
computer-generated holograms of krypton laser interferometry.
It's the dawn of man: for the first time in history we'll soon
be free enough to discover who we are."
(Expanded Cinema, Gene Youngblood, Introduction,
Buckminster Fuller, p.41)
At that time there was nothing yet being touted as
the "information superhighway." The infrastructure had
yet to be realized. There was not yet aWired magazine which
would inform it's readers of every aspect of how to be completely
turned on and plugged in. The sentiments inWired do echo
Youngblood's, their patron saint is Marshall McLuhan, but unlike
some mescaline tripping logarithm freak's "far out"
communication creation this product is ultra organized, has targeted
it's market and makes the combination of coolness and capital
seem like a piece of cake.
IDIOMS OF SCIENCE
"Technology, whether figured in the exaggerated
modalities of the sublime or the cooler pragmatism of an elite
technocracy, defines the American relation to manifest destiny
and the commitment to an ideology of progress and modernity."
Before continuing it is worth analysing some tenets
of western science which have so far been invoked and which deserve
explication to better understand the critical reevaluations as
well as the "culture wars" which have occurred in the
Differing from Youngblood's optimistic technical embrace of the "global intermedia network" one detects in Smithson's beliefs in entropy an ambivalence toward and a questioning of forms of scientific knowledge which suggest that progress or solutions are: 1. Possible
2. Come about linearly or within closed systems
Ways of questioning scientific paradigms have continued
since the early1970s ( and before, see Thomas S. Kuhn's The
Structure of Scientific Revolutions ; my focus is specifically
on the latter half of this century and on changes specific to
this time) and have taken on various forms, aided in part by thoughts
coming from outside of scientific disciplines such as deconstructionism,
Foucauldian analysis of social systems, post-colonial studies,
feminist and gender studies as well as studies from historians
of science. It is more possible now than it was in the early1970s
to find declarations such as: "There are political consequences
to scientific accounts of the world" and these are "specific
historical and cultural productions" ("Interview with
Donna Haraway," Technoculture, eds. Andrew Ross, Constance
Penley) One of the differences though between the present and
the early1970s is that ideas which were believed to have been
resolved then, especially since the Civil Rights struggles for
equal representation such as whether black people's intelligence
is genetically determined and lower than that of white people's,
have again become a topic for debate as was witnessed after the1994
publication of The Bell Curve. In light of this phenomenon
and the attitudes which are circulating in it's wake a reexamination
of the genealogy of the professionalism of science and it's rise
to authority seems timely.
"[A]ppeals to an impersonal "nature"
are common in times of turmoil; what made the mid-nineteenth century
distinctive was the successful institutionalization of a particular
view of that "nature."(ed.,Harding,
In "Appropriating the Idioms of Science: The
Rejection of Scientific Racism" Nancy Leys Stepan and Sander
L. Gilman analyse the authority contained in scientific language
as well as attempts to refute some of the claims made in the name
of science with a focus on the years 1870 to 1920. They assert
that it was during this period that science acquired it's "modern
epistemological, institutional and cultural forms" and during
which time it became consolidated as the "dominant mode of
cognition of industrial society." They trace how science
came to be regarded as "a sharply edged and value-neutral
domain of knowledge" - as apolitical, nontheological, universal,
empirical and uniquely objective (in part because [of it's] uniquely
methodological) form of knowledge unlike any other." (p.
173. The "Racial" Economy of Science: Toward a Democratic
Future, ed. Sandra Harding)
The scientific text, the scientific lecture, a
The rise of the scientific text which was meant to
be understood only by those inducted into a particular language
came about then. This was part of an attempt at forming boundaries
around the field which would delegitimize practices not conforming
to the standards which were then being created. Between 1832 and
1870 this push was made by the British Association for the Advancement
of Science (BAAS) :
"[P] ractioners in fields of inquiry ruled "unscientific"
were excluded from the association and thereby from representation
within "science." Areas fraught with moral and/or political
controversy kept a place within the boundaries of science only
when purged of those concerns, as scientists adopted the value-neutral,
empirical language now seen as defining science itself. Science
as a form of knowledge separated itself from other knowledge systems;
in the process, the dichotomies between the pure and the impure
(or the applied sciences), the rational and the irrational, the
objective and the subjective, the hard and the soft, the male
and the female, were given material form. Such polarities, and
the institutional boundaries that created and maintained them,
were not the inevitable results of a nature merely "discovered"
and described; they were the products of active institution creation,
demarcation setting and the successful use of political and cultural
resources to achieve these ends." (ibid., p. 174)
Part of how this new specialization was secured was
through the texts, designated as scientific, which ensued. Previously
texts had been closer to literary forms using a variety of expression
and metaphors. Now the text was meant to be less porous, thus
allowing less leeway for interpretation:
"It was in the late nineteenth century that
the modern scientific text as we know it stabilized to become
the standard, accepted form of writing in nearly all branches
of the natural sciences....The neutral style of the scientific
paper, the absence of a strong, individualized authorial "I,"
the emphasis on the factuality of nature, on a nature revealed
by specific methods (experimental, technical) - all these features
rendered the scientific text problematic for the nonscientific
writer and reader and successfully circumscribed the process of
Stepan and Gilman go on to state that the forms of
contestation to scientific racism reflected a struggle with how
one could argue within the perameters of what became established
as scientific discourse. What is evident today is that the polemics
toward this previously established notion of scientific primacy
are circulating, as is proven by a compilation of writings which
appeared in a variety of lay publications addressing The Bell
Curve and which have been collected in The Bell Curve Debate:
History, Documents, Opinions. ( ed. Russell Jacoby and Naomi
Glauberman.) It would seem that more people feel in a position
to understand scientific arguments and scientific and technological
"data" is appearing increasingly in more literary forms
with the increase of Internet access leading and which is leading
to a textual cybergenres. Amidst all of this stepped production
of information how then is it possible for conservative ideologies
which have a basis in conventions developed in the nineteenth
century just described are still able to captivate and mystify?
The Bell Curve was a bestseller.
NOTES - A LECTURE IN COPENHAGEN
In an art school in Copenhagen I heard a "scientific
lecture." It was given by an artist whom I was told is also
"really" a biologist too and who is working on a dissertation.
So a strange tension proceeded as I listened to what was said
and watched the "documents" which were presented.
The speaker had the look of a 19th century scientist.
He had a beard and glasses. He spoke in level "reasonable"
tones which were meant to convey an authority to what he said.
He used visual"documents" to underlie his points. Since
the images shown were meant to cause a friction between what he
said and the calm way in which he said it I at first thought he
was making a parody of a scientific lecture, except this wasn't
funny and lacked the mirroring which enables irony to suceed.
There was a missing term and what was said seemed about as literal
as what talk show host Rush Limbaugh presents on his TV show where
he too shows "documents" - often decontextualized speeches
- which he talks over. This talk was quite similar as well as
some of the audience's responses, which were approving.
I wondered whether it was possible to watch Rush
Limbaugh in Copenhagen and I wondered who would be amused by it.
Usually he bashes liberals and ethnic groups and feminists. Here
in this lecture images of Marlboro men stood in for men and images
of nude truncated torsos with legs cut off just below the pubic
hair stood in for women. Images were shown of beauty and beauty
was described as being equivalent with "the norm." The
beauties shown bore a resemblance to the Greek ideals. There was
no nod to reevaluations of evolutionist theories or toward the
previously mentioned theories which have questioned late19th century
scientific paradigms. We were suddenly in a strange time warp,
a place where women's duty was to be a man's projection of his
desires, where gays were not really taken seriously and where
Africans were "hysterical" people, literally children.
The "lecture" ended with footage of children from Benin
(why Benin?) laughing and playing with a camera on a tripod which
was left near where the children were playing by the lecturer
on his visit there. There was no translation of what these children
were saying and the footage minded me of that taken by Osa and
Martin Johnson, early 20th century American travellers, for their
movie "Congarilla," in which nothing the "natives"
say is translated and the Johnson's comments provide the voiceover.
In this case there was no voiceover, just an introduction to the
footage in which the lecturer described the children as becoming
"hysterical" over his placement of the camera on a tripod
in their midst. Maybe they were saying, "Why is this fool
leaving his camera here?" but we weren't given the option
to find out.
The lecturer kept addressing the audience as "we"
in a way which reminded me of Newt Gingrich and the TV journalist
Peggy Noonan who around that time had broadcast a series of conversations
called, "Peggy Noonan on Values." "We" was
used to mean we sane rational clean good right people, in Gingrich's
and Noonan's case. In this lecturer's case I was not so sure what
was meant, since we were in an art school and since art schools
are known for producing "nonconformists." But he had
his followers. I was reminded that the Dartmouth Review, published
by Dartmouth College students, was the breeding place for many
of the current counter counter-culturalists or young neo-conservatives
who like to think of themselves as being cool and conservative.
They form an opinion elite which has had considerable influence.
One of various similarities I noticed between the lecturer and
this group were both's fascination with Greek concepts such as
the norm, the ideal. In the case of Roger Kimball, a cultural
critic and managing editor of Hilton Kramer's The New Criterion,
he majored in philosophy and classical Greek in college: "
I read Marcuse and all that stuff - the 'unholy trinity' of Marx,
Nietzsche and Freud,"... But he was more drawn to Aristotle
and "The Federalist Papers," and he found the academy
uncongenial. "I had the feeling that high culture was being
attacked." ("The Counter Counterculture," James
Atlas, The New York Times Magazine, Feburary 12, 1995)
FUTURE PERFECT ISN'T PRESENT
"While the arts as radar feedback provide
a dynamic and changing corporate image, their purpose may be not
to enable us to change but rather to maintain an even course toward
permanent goals, even amidst the most disrupting innovations.
We have already discovered the futility of changing our goals
as often as we change our technologies."
(McLuhan, p. x)
Artforum's September 1995
issue had a technology slant. It included a section called "The
Art Screen Scene." In it various art world-related people
were asked their opinions of the Internet. Comments showed a lack
of imagining the possibilities beyond dumping "art"
onto the Net and not reconceiving what that process could mean,
although english professor Gregory Ulmer was hopeful: "There
are contradictory forces in the arts now. There's that ivory-tower
gallery system, but there's also a tendency to avoid being a commodity
and to be a practice instead. The avant-gardes's function is to
say, Here's something everyone can do, and it doesn't require
training. That's the part of this that interests me. " That
is optimistic, but once again as the above "lecture"
demonstrated forms and locations may change and time passes, but
what kinds of ideologies are being invoked and how will these
affect the forms which are used whether it be a "lecture,"
which might even be considered in the art context as "avant-garde"
(whatver that can mean now), or a CD-ROM?
Changes in thinking come about much more slowly than
one might imagine while being bombarded with various forms of
technopromotion. Certain ideas which it seemed must be relagated
to charlatanism or pseudoscience - as in the case of the "posture
photo scandal" in which Ivy League schools during the 1930s
to the 1970s allowed nude photos of incoming students to be taken
which were used to study how somatypes can be equated with superiority
("The Great Ivy League Nude Posture Photo Scandal,"
Ron Rosenbaum, January 15, 1995, The New York Times Magazine)
- surface and persist at different times and in varying milieus.
Two recent examples of approaches to thinking about
technology and art come to mind which relate to questions regarding
criticality raised in "Dropping Science." One is the
book, Culture on the Brink: Ideologies of Technology and
the other is the exhibition "When Tekkno Turns to Sound of
One of the reasons these two endeavors grasped my
attention were because each made me aware of their own cultural
specificity - the moments of their emergence, where they emerged,
and the ensuing reactions to them. They don't exist as isolated
events, but rather as points from which to contemplate complex
issues, histories and contradictions in relation to the cultural
field. Another reason they sparked my interest was their divergence
from the major media discussions of technology.
There's always a next moment and a new thing about
to come. Changes, especially in the realm of technology, can seemingly
occur quite rapidly making what just approached the cutting edge
resemble general knowledge soon after. But what aspects in the
rapid fire debates over "new" technologies are worth
examining repeatedly? Despite the time lag between conference
and publishing date Culture on the Brink provides an instance
in textual form of engagement with what has become a popular discourse
on technology from directions still pertinent and which focus
on points of view ordinarily muffled by the din of enthusiastic
yeasayers amidst which the information-consumer-society-and-convergence-of-art-and-marketing-into-technoculture
debate seems most prevalent. Even during a period of what appears
to be rapid change some reflection is possible.
The book, edited by Gretchen Bender and Timothy Druckrey,
developed from a 1992 Dia Center for the Arts "Discussion
in Contemporary Culture" in New York. It's publication date
is 1994. In the interim the Internet became more popular and the
World Wide Web came into existence. The artifactual aspect of
the book interests me in that key discussions are geared toward
the aftermath of the Gulf War and and other events which had been
prominent in the American media and had an impact on perception
such as the Rodney King trial and the films "Lawnmower Man"
and "Silence of the Lambs." In addition there is information
which will be useful in ongoing debates, such as that in R.C.
Lewotin's essay detailing the complexity of what it may be possible
to deduce from DNA testing, as well as outlining the economic
vested interests of molecular biologists and shareholders in genetic
engeneering endeavors. Throughout the book is the attempt to get
behind the media trance and to historicize the current state of
affairs. Often the contributors specify the conditions under which
the "state of the art" is maintained - that being hiphop
in the case of Tricia Rose's essay describing the complex art
of sampling or the special effects in TV and films which Herbert
I. Schiller describes as, attention riveting tools able to bind
consumers to products which themselves are nonstop advertisements,
One of the distinguishing features of the book is it's attempt to question the rush toward an idealized technological future and to analyse what might be at stake in what Stanley Aronowitz, one of the contributors, refers to as a "postcritical period." Even though the chapter divisions titles can seem cliched and broad,
(Ideologies of Technology; Technology and the Body:
The Constitution of Identity; Information, Artificiality, and
Science; Technology, Art, and Cultural Transformation; Technology
and the New World Order) the mixture of opinions within each section
and the varied levels of contemplation are stimulating. Interesting
questions arise such as,"What do cyborgs eat?," asked
in Margaret Morse's essay, which ends with a meditation on "contamination
strategies" and "excremental art," citing Judith
Barry's "Imagination Dead Imagine" as resembling "a
mysteriously androgynous and lifelike electronic persona or cyborg
trapped within" an eight-foot-high cube.
I particularly enjoyed Kathleen Woodward's "From
Virtual Cyborgs to Biological Time Bombs: Technocriticism and
the Material Body," R.C. Lewotin's "The Dream of the
Human Genome," Langdon Winner's "Three Paradoxes of
the Information Age" and Simon Penny's "Virtual Reality
as the Completion of the Enlightenment Project," as useful
sources which provided a bridge for thinking about "When
Tekkno Turns To Sound Of Poetry.
Thinking about cultural specificity helped me in
thinking about "Tekkno." Simon Penny invokes this term
when describing the western philosophical tradition of body denial
as being a corollary for the christianity of St. Augustine, these
cultural particulars serving as a genealogical example relating
to virtual reality's abhorence of the "meat" body. In
the case of "Tekkno" the location was Kunstewerke in
Berlin. The date of the show was February 1995. This show emerged
from a development of ideas which had accrued during the past
few years, and had been tested the previous summer at the Shedhalle
in Zurich. A particular historicised strain of german feminism
and it's relationship to technology, the role of technology in
Germany and in connection to art (including Berlin techno music),
the german sociologist Gerburg Treusch-Dieter's deductions, the
particular reception of the U.S. theorists Donna Haraway and Judith
Butler in this context, and a panoply of continental theories
from the past thirty years - all were factors requiring consideration.
One reason "Tekkno" interested me was because
it grew out of discussions among women - a combination of artists,
art historians, writers, video producers - who for the most part
live in Berlin, and focussed on aspects of the technological discussion
which weren't stressed in the New York art context, these being
biotechnology and the Human Genome Project. Kathleen Woodward
raises a point worth remembering when analysing which technologies
receive media attention, even within the current field of cultural
studies amongst those she describes as a second generation of
"technocritics." As she notes:
There was, however, another story that was told in
the formative years of technocriticism in the United States, a
narrative rooted not in communications technology but rather in
biotechnology. Why did the major technological character in this
story not receive equal attention? What versions of this narrative
are being told today? What role does gender play in the technocriticism
grounded in biotechnology? How do these two narratives of technological
change - the dominant narrative based on communications and cybernetics,
the recessive narrative based on biotechnology - figure the human
Her questions relate directly to those raised in
"Tekkno." These aspects were combined with a reevaluation
of the role of text and the importance attributed to information
in conceptual art, which was greatly indebted to the systems-related
ideas I previously mentioned, and which emerged at the same time
as the computer and media technologies just described.
What was produced in "Tekkno" were several
floors of exhibits and installations and in their midst discussions
and free xeroxing of an array of texts from conceptual essays
to papers delivered by visiting lecturers. In addition there was
a series of films which spanned the seventies to the present by
female directors. The halls were filled with an assortment of
posters and techno-styled flyers. The entire atmosphere was rough
and tumble, with hints of urban survivalism reminiscent of a cross
between "Tank Girl" (the movie) and the Lo-Teks's bunker
in the movie "Johnny Mnemonic."
Like the attempt to address "ideologies of technology"
in Cultures on the Brink, the attempt to "reevaluate
text in early 'Concept Art' as a reevaluation of space and body
in the context of the so-called media technologies" is a
tall order. Neither project was a perfect example of consistency,
yet this didn't seem to be their prime intentions. The topics
themselves spill out at the seams and art contexts so happened
to provide enough flexibility for the intellectual risks taken,
ones which will most likely generate further thought and action.