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THE WORK OF ART IN THE AGE OF DIGITAL RECOMBINATION - 2009 Jos de Mul

All artists have always used media, to be understood as 'means for presenting information'
- After Kant > we know that experience is constituted and structured by sensibility and categories of human understanding
- After linguistic turn in philosophy > human mind and experience assumed to be greatly influenced by media.
media = interfaces between:
- us and the world (designation)
- us and another (communication)
- us and ourselves (self understanding)

This applies to aesthetic experience too: artistic media structures the mind of the artist, the work of art and its reception.

How computer interface also constitutes and structures aesthetic experience?
Starts from W.B. (How mechanical reproduction transformed the work of art, shift from cult value to exhibition value).
Argues that in the age of digital recombination:
1. database becomes the ontological model for the work of art
2. exhibition value has become manipulation value.

Remark about the scope of W.B.'s essay.
Notion of cult value/exhibition value.
Scope of W.B.'s work much wider than art. Also economy, politics, religion. Connection established deals with transformation of human experience through mechanization of reproduction of nature and culture.

Cult value vs. exhibition value

W.B.'s essay begins with emphasizes on the fact that works of art have always been reproducible in principle, mechanical one is responsible for new phenomenon.
It was been possible since Middle Ages but photography and film (and their dissemination) have made Mechanical reproduction become dominant cultural interface.

Before → WOA's main type characterized by uniqueness
Uniqueness = presence in Space and Time.
Even the best reproduction lacks of that “here and now”.
According to W.B., this uniqueness will determine the history it will be subject to. (physically) Tests can even be performed for authentication.

Concept of the aura enables the unique work of art to become a magical or religious object, value of “authenticity” finds its basis in the ritual.

Aura is a phenomenon of distance however close the work of art may be (unapproachable object).
New media studies concepts' reveal auratic work of art → an interface between sensible and hypersensible or physicality vs meaningful history. We might be able to touch the Joconde, still it is embedded in a tradition very distant.

Auratic work of art → sensible + supersensible, material signifier + spiritual meaning are indivisible.
As such, AWOA = symbol (cf Gadamer's “The relevance of the beautiful”)
Destruction of AWOA destroys distant presence of its history. (its attendance)

For W.B., experience of the aura can apply to nature (mountains blabla)

Claim of W.B.: radical loss of aura through print photography and film.
Mechanical reproduction brings things closer in space and time. Can watch the Joconde without having to travel to Paris.
Uniqueness & permanence → transitoriness & reproductibility
Reproduction of the Mona Lisa still refers to the original Mona Lisa. (Andy Warhol capitalized on the notion)
In mechanical reproduction distinctions between original & copy loses its meaning.
No original copy of a photo or a film.

‘To an ever greater degree the work of art reproduced becomes the work of art designed for reproducibility’ (ibid).
Acoording to W.B. → Aura + cult value will vanish
Still possible for emotional or economical reasons to preserve the cult a bit (limited editions, signature). These attempts confirm loss of aura of the WOA.

Cult value → exhibition value
exhibition value = endless reproduction of the copy.

Success of politician depends on mediagenicity, Paris Hilton is famous for being famous.
→ they have exhibition value.

Ambiguity in the essay :
WB essay contains melancolic undertones :
- aura emanates for the last time from early photographs
- mourns “incomparable beauty” of these...
BUT, WB also believes 'Mechanical media' has democratic and revolutionary potential.
Access for all, politicisation of arts, mobilisation of masses against “aesthetization of politics”

Mechanical reprod dvpt no cultural progress nor decline.
New ways of disclosure of the world, new opportunities + dangers.


Database ontology

WB's essay = most quoted text in new media studies. It has gained relevance in era of digital recombination.
Computer = mechanical machine
but digital reprod != mechanical reprod

Computer isn't one but many mediums.
'New media arts' are plenty of different productions, displayed, stored, created differently. (websites, automated program, image or sound...)
STILL they share some basic characteristics on a fundamental level (operations of persistent storage).

ABCD of computing = Add - Browse - Change – Destroy
→ dynamic elements of a database ontology (SQL query language commands: Insert, Select, Update, Delete)

Database: basic meaning refers to a collection of items ordered in one way or another.
In computing:
“a database can be defined as a structured collection of data records that is stored in a computer, so that a soft- ware program can consult it to answer queries”

4 basic operations means all possible combinations of records can be established in principle.
Dynamic ontology.

In principle not all DB are so flexible. (phonebook, paper, etc)
Electronic spread sheets can speed things up.

New types of db developed:
-1950 : hierarchical model
-1960: Networked model
-1970: Relational model

Relational model based on predicate logic and set theory (Codd 1970). Multiple tables or flat databases. RDB is multidimensional (hard to represent).
In principal: if a value is present in 2 records, there is a relationship between those 2.
Highly flexible model. They enable users to define queries not anticipated by the designers of those DB.

Plenty of potential applications.
Impact of DB not just in computational world.
DataBases = material metaphors
DB can evoke acts of the material world: enable mass customization in genetic engineering or industrial robots.
Generate surplus of meaning → conceptual metaphors (structuring our experience of ourselves and of the world)

Maslov(psychologist): one who has a hammer sees everything as a nail.
When computer is the dominant technology → everything is a database
Manovich states “databases have become the dominant cultural form of the computer age” (2002)
Onto-logical machines reshaping the world and our considerations on it.

WB: in the world of MR everything becomes an object for MR → mechanization of the world view.
Therefore in the age of digital DB → everything (nature + culture) is an object for recombination and manipulation
ex: genetic engineering
Life on Earth, the evolution isn't anymore about the survival of the fittest anymore but one possible trajectory through gene pool.
From natural history to contingency.
The DB contains infinite trajectories (life forms+virtual organisms) which can be actualized/updated.

World increasingly populated by life forms coming out of DB technologies.
In fiction: Jurassic Parc, Robocop.
For real:

mouse-ear.jpg
a. Charles Vacanti, Massachussets Medical Center Univ - Mouse with a human ear on the back, 1995

1189922150.jpg
b. Alba, Eduardo Kac, transgenic rabbit with florescent jellyfish protein, 2007

→ Debates. Can Kac's work be called Art?
Rabbit and L.H.O.O.Q provoked same scepticism over their artistic value. Seemingly non artistic medium for expression, questioning distinction of art and non art.



Database aesthetics and politics

Benjamin notes: no timeless answer to what is art and what isn't.
It was already difficult to distinguish artistic and non artistic functions of reproduction in mechanical era (aesthetisation of politics, politicization of art).
In the AODR distinction seems blurred.

Ex : Geert Mul's database work W4 (WHO WHAT WHEN WHERE)
DB 80000 photos from digital archive of Dutch photo museum Rotterdam + 4 posts for filtering. Queries can be photos of flowers in Germany 1936.
Visitors can become curators.
Installation = a work of human-computer interface design + autonomous work of art
Because: Manipulation value

In the world of digital recombination, value of the object resides in openness for manipulation.
A scholar will prefer a databased version of the work of a philosopher to a paper version because searches will be made easier, relationships and recombinaison of texts will be made easier.

Therefore...
Aesthetic value can be judged on the basis of:
- Elegance of Database structure
- User interface
When DB becomes a goal in itself, DB becomes an autonomous work of art.

Infinite number of recombinations of databases : return of the aura. In some cases, users can change DB's content or insert elements. Each time a unique recombination.

→ something back of the ritual dimension, interface between sensible & hypersensible.
No longer in history but in virtuality.
Intangible infinity of possible recombinations.

Mega Mona Lisa website encourages users to submit their version.
→ series of 'original auratic copies' (Davis 1995)
Digital objects seem inherently unstable because of their manipulability.
→ Performing arts rather than products (Bolle 1992)

Database ontology not limited to culture but also applies to nature.
Post-historical character: dinosaurs aren't just extinct but become a future possibility. But they would be different species because of different environments.

How can those works function as political works of art?
Power increasingly depends on manipulation of information:
- Bush and electronic vote manipulation
- Geert Wilders's movie Fitna
- recombination to create, control, evaluate financial economical, social policies

Digital recombination isn't all for art to be political.
→ works of art differ from other objects because of their reflective quality. Challenge for the recipient by dragging the attention to the medium itself. They don't manipulate politics but reflect on the politics of manipulation.

Geert Mul Match of the day (1996) part of Split Representations.
‘a computer collects images from about thirty international satellite television channels at random intervals. During the night, image- recognition software analyzes the recorded images. It compares television news with television commercials. The software compares every image with every other single image stored in the computer, checking 5000 specified characteristics in each image. After 1,000,000,000 comparisons, the computer generates a list. Images that share the most characteristics appear in pairs at the top of this list. The artist then selects a few pairs of images out of the hundreds of pairs of images, which according to the computer make a good visual match. In a daily e- mail-series subscribers receive this selection: the match of the day’

Combination of TV news and commercials > reflection on socio-economic situation.
Politics of representation and manipulation on display
Computer applies pixel statistics, seeing without understanding. Then viewer can attach meaning to anything.

Gradual awareness of inapproachability of the workings of the technology we invented. Inhuman characteristics in the medium.
Humans might become last object for digital manipulation.
W.B. was scared that humans could be alienated by mechanical reproduction.
We might be first specie to create its own successors in evolution of life, made ourselves redundant.