The unnoticed beauty of Net Art.

Pieter Bruegel - Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, circa 1560s. Oil on canvas,
Pieter Bruegel – Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, circa 1560s. Oil on canvas,

If a parrot perched on Jesus` shoulder were to repeat haphazardly “turn thy other cheek” , would it be a wise bird?

Likewise if we lecture people on what constitutes a painting, a sculpture or a dance performance but not what is Art, will they be able to detect it outside the gallery, the stage or the museum`s walls? Are we nurturing the faculty of independent thought?

Art is the arrangement of symbols, often mundane and prosaic in and of themselves, in order to create beauty, or in technical terms, provide aesthetic experience for the viewer. In addition, as important as that function alone is in beautifying and giving pleasure to the otherwise monotonous rumblings of the cogs of existence, Art also has a function to instruct, to reveal hidden truths. Yet it delivers knowledge not in a logical way like science or philosophy, but much akin to an instantaneous revelation, often bypassing the conscious mind, resembling religious experience.

Thus anything has the potential to become Art but not everything is Art. If this simple lesson could be taught, much of the works present within museums could be thrown out and likewise, more importantly, the entire world could potentially become a museum if only we trained our eyes to see Art as it really is. Perhaps this is what the German artist Joseph Beuys was getting at when he yearned for an utopian future where all could become artists.

This is the affliction of Net Art nowadays. Although many artists are making wonderful artworks in the virtual, dematerialized realm of cyberspace, the population by and large (including here the sworn art lovers) pass it without a sign of recognition. If we taught people the essence of what constitutes Art we wouldn’t need to tell them that a webpage can be so, or a search engine, or an Animated GIF. We wouldn’t need frames, gallery walls, captions, nor velvet knotted ropes as the trained eye and refined spirit would instantaneously recognise the fragrance and the sweet embrace of beauty and the enrichment of aesthetical experience.

Pieter Bruegel`s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus is for me the emblem, a perfect allegory of Net Art in 2015. A thing of beauty, a lesson that could lift mankind higher up the evolutionary spiritual ladder unveils yet goes unnoticed by the ploughman or the fisherman who look the other way. The tragic splash of unseen beauty is a like a beautiful woman`s kiss thrown to the wind in an empty moor.

Only lift thy head, don’t look around but see.

You will find that art is everywhere and mostly absent where it is told to be.

Stuff of Dreams

Still from Star Trek the New Generation. Action and learning in the holodeck.
Still from Star Trek the New Generation. Action and learning in the holodeck.

If one could read a poem on Love whilst injecting adrenalin into the bloodstream and serotonin and oxytocin into the brain, would it be the same as experiencing real Love?

My first reaction after reading chapters 2 and 3 of Theorizing Digital Culture Heritage is that Art objects (and any other museum object) should be satisfied with a perfect digital copy of themselves, in many ways superior. My first reaction was an unrelenting yes! I actually hold the belief that original artefacts, with all their aura, actually get in the way of pure Aesthetic experience or true knowledge. A disembodied art work or historical artefact can convey more meaning to the viewer because the physical details are all but a nuisance to be gotten rid of.  I had a true 19th century positivist faith on the advances of technology that will make this life on Earth a utopia.

But then something dawned upon me, like a chilling wind and a long shadow brought about by a cloud eclipsing the sun.  My rational theory and assumption hit nose-first the hard brick wall of human reality.

Humans for some weird psychological reason feel the need to be in contact with the real – as if we can only interact fully when there is an aura. Star trek`s Enterprise holodeck is cool but nobody could say it fully substitutes a real vacation. The robotic animals in Do Androids dream of Electric Sheep? Are as fascinating as melancholic because, even though they look real, they aren’t, and we feel, as humans, that that is an irretrievable loss. When we see people living perfect lives in a simulation reality while their real bodies are imprisoned in pods with connected tubes and wires as in the Matrix, we feel an instinctive disgust and revolt. One needs the real, even if the obverse if unhappiness and limitations. Are kids better off building stuff on Minecraft or with real Lego blocks? I don’t know but I somehow believe the answer is very important for us today.

If one could have virtual sex in the future with anybody through perfect body sensor  suits, visual and audio illusions, a perfect simulation, would that satisfy people? No, we humans are cursed with the need to interact with something real.

The example of the Aborigene exhibition in Andrea Wicomb`s great essay, regarding the hall where the visitor meets dozens of talking photographs is a case in point. We have all experienced some sort of installation akin to that described and the emotional response it triggers, although present and sometimes interesting, is far away – not even remotely close – to the emotional response one would get with a real person. Even if technology was so advanced as to render the difference imperceptible, if one knows beforehand that they are interacting with a recording or simulation, immediately, as if by magic – in a puff of smoke – the psychological impact decreases.

Thus, although perfect digital reproductions of art or ethnographical artefacts – and in the near future entire simulations of old cities or events through 3d reality goggles – are intellectually interesting , fascinating, extremely didactic and even emotionally stimulating – they can never reach 100% of the equivalence of the real.

If everything if a fake virtual copy, then even the respect surrounding it goes away – people who wouldn’t hurt a fly in real life murder and kill away in trigger-happy-Shangri-La first person shooting games. When the aura goes, so goes the value. Why be in awe of a temple or a statue if it isn’t real.  In theory it shouldn’t make a difference – it shouldn’t be the case –  but unfortunately for us, our brains are wired in another way.

There will always be a place for the digital in our lives and in Museums– it is more democratic, cheaper, more interactive in many ways, didactic, BUT it will never be able to substitute the real, which, unfortunately (oh how would it be nicer and simple if it were otherwise) is what our biological brains need– and thus museums should embrace the digital without foregoing the real objects, be it artistic, historical or natural artefacts.

My final verdict: the original material object is (shouldn`t be, but is) superior to digital copies and thus should receive more financial support and attention by GLAM institutions.

From Ptolemy to NeoCartography.

World map from the father of Geography, the Greek Hecateus, dating 5th century b.c.
World map from the father of Geography, the Greek Hecateus, dating 5th century b.c.

Brief comments on Cartography

Mankind has been creating maps since the dawn of history. Great civilizations have used maps to describe graphically and symbolically space, and it has been one of the oldest forms of communication and data storage. They are artefacts that interweave art, science, ideology and identity and are indicators of culture and capability of abstract thinking. Maps have been the medium of choice to transmit information about space and, as such, their importance transcends their value as mere objects. As a symbolical representation of outside world that can be decoded by our brains, maps inform us the about relationships and patterns that arise from the interaction between geography and humanity and thus enhance our comprehension and awareness of our surroundings.

A variety of different materials have been used to make maps, from stone to metals, parchment to paper. The word map comes from the Latin mappa, or cloth. The creation of the printing press in the fifteenth century allowed maps to be reproduced identically, bypassing mistakes, and cheaply. It was an enormous revolution in the dissemination of cartography and of the mental awareness that maps foster. From rare items made for a lucky few, maps were now accessible to a wider share of European population.

With the digital revolution of our times, these trends have increased a thousand fold. Cartography has entered a radically new phase. Maps are now available to everyone at any time for free. Whereas once the product of great individual efforts whose maps were copied and used of centuries, such as Ptolemy and Mercator, nowadays maps are being created by millions of amateurs in joint effort projects. The map producers are also direct consumers and the enormous amount of data contained in them nowadays is made possible with new technology.The revolutionary paradigm shift brought about by our digital age has given birth to new concepts and issues in the art of map making, so much so that some are calling it Neocartography.

Open Street Map – Mapping Revolution

Open Street Map (OSM) is a collaborative project that falls into the category of Neocartography. It was created in 2004 by Steve Coast in the UK and has nowadays 1.6 million registered users. It uses the Open Data Base License which allows the registered users to freely edit, share and use the database and guaranteeing the extension of this freedom to all. I am one of the registered users and I will henceforth summarize my experience with this cartographical digital tool. I observed that OSM uses the Mercator Projection map instead of the Peter`s projection (more reliable to represent area mass), and as a result Greenland is about the size of Africa or South America.

OSM allows the cartographer (you and me) to contribute to the creation of a world map by actively mapping out areas of the globe. It supplies the data to work with (as for example satellite images and the rough outline of the area) and also gives the user the tools to draw the map. I used Potlatch, one of the editing tools available, which is embedded into the website. The freedom it allows for anyone to freely help create a world map is in a sense a democratic revolution, one unique in the history of cartography. As mentioned above, maps historically have been the product of great individual cartographers such as Ptolemy or Mercator. In addition, expensive artefacts as they were, maps were commissioned by the State or by powerful private enterprises, who could extend the privilege to professionals (i.e. seamen) or fund scientists (i.e. universities) as they saw fit. This status quo stood remained unshaken until the revolution the digital age sweep all away like a tsunami. The concept that amateurs can help create world maps through crowdsourced projects, away from the influence and control of institutions of authority and power, is indeed revolutionary.

Persuasive maps

Researching about the history of cartography, one comes to realize that no map ever drawn has been totally impartial. They have all, to some greater or lesser degree been persuasive. Persuasive maps are drawn to change the opinions of people, and have been used by fascist (and democratic) governments, empires and colonies alike. The only possible neutral map would carry a scale of 1:1, but then we are leaving cartography and entering Jorge Borges` fiction writing On Exactitude in Science.

All maps, I thus believe, contain a degree of subjectivity, a hidden rhetoric. One can view this as an impurity that should be aseptically withdrawn or as the elan vital that gives maps their throbbing passion. Even map projects that see themselves as dispassionate, neutral and scientific, as for example OSM are still persuasive. For example, I noticed that there are areas in OSM which are more “mapped” than others, perhaps indirectly indicating more important places. In other words, the density of information correlated to the assumed importance of the area mapped.

While exploring the map, I noticed another consequence of the crowdsourcing approach. Different regions of the world were mapped in different languages. Cairo (a place I plan to visit someday) had its streets and landmarks written in Arabic and used the Arabic alphabet. The same phenomena could be observed in Russia, using the Cyrillic alphabet. One can suppose that the amateur cartographers who mapped these places could have used the lingua franca, English, but that could indicate, perhaps, in their view, some degree of subservience and a lingering colonial angst. Thus it is very much plausible that an element of political, cultural, or tribal motives lay (subconsciously)  behind what should be a neutral map to be used by the public.

I cant think I will be using this map for my future visit to Cairo.
I cant think I will be using this map for my future visit to Cairo.

My own mapping experience on OSM.

I set myself the task of mapping out two regions in OSM. The first one was my local neighbourhood in Cork City. I observed that most of the main roads and building were already mapped, including some useful details such as bus stops and local stores. Initially, I added to the project data from my own experience by plotting down some pathways through dense trees that I use in the summer months and minor details such as trees and local commercial establishments. I have also marked and named a few public sculptures which were remarkably absent. On repeated mapping sessions, I came to notice a sort of pattern: while shops and businesses were usually already mapped out and named, churches and libraries were not. At UCC for example, all the food shops, bathrooms and atm machines were there but the Boole Library remained untagged and unnamed. The same had occurred closer home. I also found that churches weren’t commonly identified and had a hard time finding the correct symbol to identify them on the OSM window. After a few tries I found that the symbol for churches was actually designated the more neutral place of worship (an ideological, rhetorical choice undoubtedly). These observations highlight the qualitative and quantitative selections that unconsciously are made by the registered users during their mapping efforts.

The Boole library was un-taged and identified while the food shops were. Evidence of priorities.
The Boole library was un-taged and unidentified while the food shops were. Evidence of priorities.

My other mapping task was small yet meaningful for me. I found that the small, secret-ish path from Conner pass road to Peddlar`s Lake, out in the Dingle peninsula was not mapped. I promptly put it there in hope that someday a happy visitor will use that information to gain access to one of the most beautiful and magical site and scenery in Ireland. On further log-ins, I have mapped out a few other trails previously explored and that weren’t in OSM. I believe that sharing my previous sauntering onto a map (and thus expanding the spatial awareness of a community) captures the essence of mapmaking.

Inclusion of the path from the main road up to the secluded Peddlar`s Lake.
Inclusion of the path from the main road up to the secluded Peddlar`s Lake.

Afterthoughts…

As Martijn Van Exel eloquently said: “Open Street Map is “warm geography” at its core: real people mapping what is important to them… not the “cold geography” of thematic geodata churned out by natural mapping agencies and commercial providers”. This sums up the essence of Neocartography. My experience so far in OSM has been to input my share of data (subconsciously what I deem important) to this public, crowdsourced project. I indeed see the importance behind it, since the importance of data and maps cannot be underrated. The Haiti earthquake crisis of 2010 and OSM`s vital role in the aid efforts prove this beyond doubt. In addition, as a matter of principle, we cannot leave to some private owned company such as Google the monopoly of mapmaking, and the dangers that situation could engender have been subject of many a dystopian sci-fi novels.

For my thesis on Internet Art and Animated GIFs I cannot see a direct use for crowdsourcing, as the data I need to collect and manage is small enough for a one-man job. I can clearly identify, however, the value and importance of it as one moves towards larger projects which stem from community-based volunteer initiatives and as we march towards a more democratic and open data web environment. Some project are simply too large for a team and crowdsourcing seems to be the correct solution, albeit with some minor drawbacks, some of which I hope I have called attention to.

I mapped the footpaths, trees and selected the area where a children`s playground lies.
I mapped the footpaths, trees and selected the area where a children`s playground lies.

Memory Enhancing Digital Tools

Tools in service of Tools in service of Ideas.
Tools in service of Tools in service of Ideas.

During my undergrad studies back in the late 90s and early noughties, I would often participate in laborious transcribing group-efforts for certain content-dense modules. During the many hours spent writing down verbatim reproductions of monotonal lectures from a cassette tape to paper, I acquired first-hand experience of how our memory, be it short or long term, differs (more than we are comfortable to admit) from actual events. This fact would highlight itself as soon as I compared the final transcripts to my correspondent class notes or to my memory recollections of the lecture. As a rule, an amazing number of information given in class was lost, presumably because the human brain cannot maintain a constant level of attention, even if we think we are doing so!

My thesis on the MA in Digital Art and Humanities focuses on Internet Art, arguably the latest chapter in the History of Art. Due to its recentness, much of the material on the topic hasn’t yet been published, no canonical works exist, nor is there a common beaten path for a scholar to follow. The overview of the field is more like an overgrown heather where researchers are still finding the way, the narrative path so to speak. Many of the key artists and critics who have published their thoughts and exhibited their art have done so online, in the form of blogs or videos. Youtube is a great resource for the later and has thus helped my research on Internet Art.

Being influenced by my previous experience of data loss between the spoken and written word, I was inspired to transcribe some of the videos available online on Internet and Contemporary Art which I found the most instructive for my research. Although watching a person speak offers a unique way of gleaning  information, in the observation of tones, emphasis, facial expressions and other visual signals all of which aid us, a good chunk of actual hard data contained in the words is invariably lost. An appropriate analogy is trying to capture rain outside by placing a cooking pot in your drive-way. No matter how large your cooking pot is, most of the raindrops will fall outside its perimeter. Now exchange the cooking pot for our biological memory bank and the raindrop for words and you get a clear picture.

My first inclination was thus to find a digital tool which would do the transcribing for me directly from the video to text file, from sound into words. Unfortunately, voice recognition software is still at its early stages and would not be able to transcribe verbatim data from noisy conference rooms with background hubbub and hosting speakers with varying voices and accents.

Searching on the DiRT directory for a tool that would aid me in my task, I came across several promising candidates. One of the first ones I found was Transana, a transcribing program being developed by the University of Wisconsin-Madison since 2001. It seemed like a great tool specially created to aid researchers to transcribe and analyse video and audio data, with cool features such linking the transcripts to specific points in the video. My enthusiasm was curbed when I saw that the price for download was 75 dollars for the standard version.

I next turned to my second candidate in line, the open source program SoundScribbler . Developed by Eric Breck in 1998 at the University of Michigan and intended for use in the Michigan Corpus of Academic Spoken English (MICASE) project, this tight little tool wasn’t as fancy as Transana but offered all the features I really needed to get my research done. Soundscribbler basically plays your media files via installed audio codecs (the most common formats are usable) and allows you to manipulate the speed on reproduction. On top of that, Soundscribbler offers a neat feature called walk which allows you to loop a certain segment of the audio over and over until you get the transcribing of that given segment done. All the commands can be made with short-cuts on the keyboard, so in practice I had my Word document open and would press keystroke commands such as cntr-F5 to play the audio, cntr-F6 to pause it, cntrl-F7 to walk etc… It is a very user friendly program with an intuitive interface and I got the job done quite swiftly: I transcribed the Touching the Art – Episode 2 – Postmodernism, Post-Net & the Art Market, a 6 minute video, in less than 40 minutes.

The video debate and Soundscribbler program.
The video debate and Soundscribbler program.

I found no on-line community, articles or reviews for SoundScribbler. It seems like a pretty unknown and undervalued program (despite being quite sustainable and existing for 17 year) offered as a download from Eric Brecks` personal webpage at Michigan University. Due, however to its incredible efficiency, simplicity and almost instantaneous learning curve, I found that these absences were not detrimental to the usage of the tool.  The program is released under the GNU General Public License and Eric Brecks offers the source code, written in C programming language (open source) but asks to be sent a copy of any user alteration. Soundscribbler proves that there are great digital tools available out there that are simply out of the spotlight. This program helps the user create his own data as opposed to creating data from given inputs. It is, in trans-humanism terms, a digital extension to our limited biological memories. Once I create a transcription of a given debate, anyone can read and compare it to the video original, thus verifying the whole process.

Coming back to the video itself, I watched it once carefully before using Soundscribbler and transcribing it. As expected, I was amazed as how certain aspects of the video were invisible on a mere first watch.

My memory had told me that certain guests were more interesting and more participative than others and after transcribing I found it was exactly the opposite! In likewise manner, the Interviewer, Casey Jane Ellison, a charming mixture of the wits of Canadian writer Donna Lypchuck with the edgy looks of Elvira, had spouted out some keywords which, for being new to me, had completely passed by undetected. It is easy to see how data can be lost if we rely on notes or memory. Not only that, while transcribing, we can also tap into the subconscious stream of a debate and observe relations and beliefs that the speakers themselves might be unaware. Here lies one of the key functions and usefulness of a simple online tool like SoundScribbler.

On a later stage, I made a word cloud of the transcribed text using tagul.com and visualized the keywords that were spoken in the debate, thus yet again compensating, with another digital tool, for the limitations of my biological analytical capabilities. But that is another tool for another tale.

word cloud created from the transcript.
word cloud created from the transcript.

Digital Virtual Communities

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FRIEDRICH, Caspar David – Monk by the Sea

Digital Virtual Communities

How do virtual communities connect their members and allow them to interact amongst each other? And what is the type and quality of that interaction? These are the questions I want to probe below. As the reader will observe, I do not intend to give a verdict or a final illuminating answers to the questions above, but instead, my objective is to raise these issues and make us all ponder them. In the words of Socrates, this blog entry is a gadfly to us Digital Humanists.

A virtual community can be defined as a network of people with mutual interest who interact in cyberspace. Ok, let`s focus on the word “interact” for a moment. What is the essential element, or ingredient in human interaction? Is it exchange of information? Or maybe it is a way of reaching out and knowing that we are not alone in our apprehensions, beliefs or fears? If so, virtual communities can function as real communities of people who perform meaningful interaction. Before we get too cozy, let`s continue. What if human interaction needs something more such as contact, smell, heat, touch, voice tones, and texture? Perhaps, these are elements vital to constituting real, healthy communication between humans. How much is Second Life actually “life” or what kind of real friendship is created between MMORPGs players?

To some influential philosophers like Kant, the outside world is real and concrete but we can never really grasp its true naked realness. Reality is always filtered by our senses and our brain. In short, the exterior objective world is unattainable and must be understood by our interior subjectivity. We are cursed to never really interact with it in that sense (in fact atoms never really touch each other!) and for all we know, we could be brains floating in jars like in H.P.Lovecraft`s The Whisperer in the Darkness. With these thoughts in mind, we can ask ourselves: What constitutes then valid input? Is a typed “I ❤ you” for a person on the other side of the world equal to an actual face to face experience of these words?

These enquiries above are philosophically valid to ponder the nature of and approach to virtual online communities. Networks of communities expanded from small localized tribes to feature our neighbourhoods in cities, school friends and job mates. Now, with the digital revolution, cyberspace allows us to establish human communities and networks with people who don’t live near us, don’t share kinship, don’t go to our school or work in our department – people we usually don’t know much beyond a flickering online username or avatar. We have in the last two decades become social creatures on a scale beyond physical constraints.

We can make an analogy with the thoughts that Walter Benjamin expounded in his essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. According to the author, a super high quality photograph of the Mona Lisa or a perfect millimetre scan of every inch of the canvas would still lack the aura of the original work. The copy, as near perfection as it might be, is not the Mona Lisa (with its historical and unique authority) and we cannot interact with it really beyond a superficial surface level. Art Historians would have a hard time x-raying a photo of the Mona Lisa to find evidences of previous sketches or alterations or chemically analyse the pigments to discover who produced the paint and establish economical routes in the fifteenth century. So, applying Water Benjamin`s ideas to our case, we can ask: do virtual communities lack the aura of real off-line ones? Is a face to face talk more real than texting on Facebook or Twitter? These questions are hard to answer but it seems that to attempt to, we must isolate the key essence of what constitutes community and interaction.

Virtual communities do create an equalitarian platform for communication and discussion, a perfect democratic agora. It can wash away factors such as body language, race, gender, age, charisma, voice, presence, dress code, status  – all of which normally influence us to whom we give attention and listen to. In cyberspace, the message, the logos, is free from these factors. Communication becomes disembodied and rarefied, pure and sharper. Perhaps a truer interaction between people can happen. We have all been sucked into virtual communities, be them gaming forums, a subscription to a Youtube channel one always post comments on, or Facebook groups for college or sports.

We just have to be careful and observe if we are establishing real interaction and participating in a community or just talking to ourselves, to our own reflection on the laptop screen. If we are we might run the risk of falling into a bottomless pool and Echo will forever preserve our texts in the void of cyberspace in some refrigerated server room in California. We must interact and truly communicate with people and establish meaningful communities in cyberspace else our thoughts and ideas become preserved in a pickle jar or empty 0s and 1s.

Narcissus by Caravaggio
Narcissus by Caravaggio

Is the Digital Revolution a Paradigm Shift?

LIVES_Sensivise1virtual_reality1

Thomas Kuhn first introduced the term Paradigm shift in his paper The Structure of Scientific Revolution published in the 1960s. In order to evaluate if the advances in digital technologies have brought about (or not) a paradigm shift in the way we live, research and exchange knowledge, we must first examine what is meant by the term.

Paradigms are understood to be frames of reference or points of view to the understanding of a situation. It is inside a given paradigm that we can collect and order our data, infer relations and connections, and finally come to conclusions. A description, in other words, a conclusion about the world, an affirmation, is a function of a paradigm.

To illuminate the matter let us fall into an example given by Professor James Hall Ph.D from Richmond University in his lecture series The Philosophy of Religion. According to the professor, the works of the philosopher Rene Descartes and the psychologist Skinner operate in different paradigms and thus come to radically different interpretations of data. Rene Descartes believed humans were composed of two distinct substances, a material one (the body) and a immaterial one (the mind), which were connected but also had a degree of independence. In his view, thus, although the body was bound to follow the rules of physics, the mind operated in a manner more free, was autonomous. Creations of our mind, such as a painting, an equation or a speech weren’t bound to a mechanical sequence of causal events, as they happened de novo, out of the blue.

Skinner, working within a different paradigm altogether, believed that humanities were constituted of one single substance, the physical, material one. Thus human output were the product of material causal chain of events, tightly bound to laws, and thus lacking any true free will or imagination. The Human mind is a slave to the brain, its physiology, its genetic makeup and the events that have befallen us all. Under the lens of a Skinnerian paradigm, we are all automatons made of flesh.

Paradigms, be them cultural or scientific, do change and are dropped for others. What causes a paradigm shift? Paradigms are usually dropped if they can no longer produce an adequate view of reality. As new data is collected and new discoveries unravel, a paradigm that cannot cope will lose its appeal. Thus a Newtonian paradigm can slowly be dropped for Einstein`s.

Paradigms shifts are also brought about by technological advances, and this is where we are specially concerned. The discovery of agriculture, the invention of writing or the wheel, and the preaching of religious leaders have brought about true revolutions to the paradigm of humanity. In fact Thomas Kuhn used the term revolution to describe paradigm shifts.

The digital age, which began with the first computers in the 1940s and evolved into a vast net of connections between them (giving rise to the internet), has brought about enormous changes in the way we live, specially the way we communicate and share information. But does it constitute a paradigm shift? I believe it does.

Most of us have lived in two distinct eras during our life time, a pre and post internet. We have witnessed first-hand how things have changed and to what degree. Just to illuminate, your humble author will provide example of his own life (but to which I am sure most of you can relate directly): I have met significant others through the internet; I communicate with close family members through the internet; I make art through the internet; I study for my Masters through the internet, gathering bibliography, contacting lecturers and fellow students; I watch films and videos through the internet; I read books through the internet; I plan holidays, book flights and hotels through the internet. As a matter of fact, it is hard to identify an area of my life that hasn’t been touched by the Digital technology of computers and the web of the internet. I supposed the last standing tower is indeed the bathroom, that is, until some Japanese scientists come up with a digital toilet.

Paradigms can shift very rapidly, catching civilizations by surprize. The Digital and Internet age have brought about a different organization of society and a new way of thinking. As a new paradigm emerges and takes place of the older one, the ways we perceive reality also change. Old beliefs fall, dead as autumn leaves and new ones cry out like newborns. Even religion cannot escape – Nick Bostrom, a philosopher working at Oxford University released a very influential paper in 2003 entitled “Are You Living in a Computer Simulation?”. It boils down to a religious view of reality, a great unify theory which has a digital, sci-fi twist to it. Numerous leading physicist, particularly working with Quantum physics have subscribed that we are living in a simulation, and use frequently words like pixels, bits, information stream in their scientific discourses. Many believe that we are becoming, as a product and function of this new paradigm, what is now termed Post-Humans.

The Digital Age has brought about a Paradigm Shift which has caught us unaware, like a sly uppercut. The ramifications are unpredictable. Only one thing is certain, everything will change.

Sculptures of thoughts and feelings.

Digital Collage, by Alan Andrei
Digital Collage, by Alan Andrei

Keeping in line with the Peripatetic theme of mental sauntering, I will pause for a bit on my ongoing discussion about Digital Art, to propose here a proto-art object I have been musing about.

As part of our final project and thesis for the Masters in Digital Arts and Humanities, we are expected to create a digital artefact. Being, as I am, an amateur (as in unpublished) poet I thought it might be a possibility to experiment in coding and try to create online poems that capture the characteristics of the hypertext digital landscape.

As afore mentioned, not only is digital art medium- specific, it also (as any good art) captures the spirit of the age and expands human understanding of itself and the world. Cacophany is the term I used in a previous post to describe certain aspects of our present-day culture, and what better medium than the internet to allows us to explore and reproduce this.

Since my poems always had this aspect to them, a series of visual images (like zapping through tv channels or a Virginia Woolf prose on speed) that strive to produce a feeling or a mood, I believe that the hypertext qualities of the internet will allow me to reproduce them, maybe not better but certainly in new and exciting manners.

Poems have always been limited by the two dimensional aspects of the written page, but with hypertext, we can create a three-dimensional poem, a kind of sculpture of thought and feelings.

Later Note: I have written the poem but I am struggling to post it on the blog. Coding with HTLM5 didn’t work as I thought it would on WordPress, so I might end up creating a webpage and link it here in the near future.

Digital Collage, by Alan Andrei
Digital Collage, by Alan Andrei

Medium Specificity and Cacophany

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Medium Specificity in Internet Art – enhance reading listening to this track

Reading a Kerouac novel, the words beat to the rhythm of some crazy fast jazz, while you pause to breathe and sip on your coffee before jumping into the dancing of the sentences once again and are led on… the chaos of modern life, exhilarating, confusing…

Over a hundred years ago Modernist painters questioned the function of their trade. Should painting mimic a three-dimensional space? Well, no, they would argue –  a sculpture can do that better. Should we painters attempt a photorealistic portrayal of objects and people, like the Dutch masters or the Neo-Classicists? Well, no, again. Photography does that better and cheaper. Then what should the Medium of paint focus itself on? Painting, modernist artists would argue, should concentrate on the properties of paint on canvas, on its bi-dimensional attributes, on colour, texture, structural relationships between shapes and tones…

From the Impressionists to Neo-Impressionists, Fauvists, Matisse, Cubism, Suprematism and Abstract Expressionism (to name many which in fact are just a few), we have witnessed an attempt to experiment on the medium of painting, pushing its boundaries and letting all other pretensions go.

Nowadays, I believe Internet Art is going through similar existential questions Modernist painters did. The way I see it, Art in the Internet can fall into two main categories: The traditional Art that uses the internet as a way of storage, archiving, or as a means to reach an exponential larger audience in the hope of recognition or/and sales. In that group lies all the musicians who upload their tracks online, painters who showcase their works on their website, museums who offer virtual tours of their collections, wanna-be directors who upload their short movies on Youtube etc…

The other category is populated by Artist who are using the specific qualities of the Internet to produce new Art. This kind of Art isn’t painting, sculpture, theatre, music, literature, performance but a strange and new mix of all, hard to pin point and uses the specific medium of the Online Digital World as its prime-matter.

We all live in an age of Information overload, of rapid changes, of blatant lies for mainstream media and gaslighting techniques. Eighteen percent of the US population have anxiety disorders and many more depression, and mass usage of anxiolytics and sleeping pills is widespread. Many teens and adults spend a third of their day on social media or on online games like lost souls in opium dens. It seems befitting to me that the Art we produce nowadays should fearlessly tackle those issues, understand and digest them. There are no more reasons to paint Rococo garden scenes, religious triptychs, portraits of (deceiving) leaders, bucolic countryside with peasants. All the masks have fallen, the king is naked. Innocence is a thing of the past.

Internet Art allows us to deal with this cacophony of contracting information, of the flickering screens of binary bytes, of plastic facebook friends in new, necessary and beautiful ways. Internet art IS cacophony itself, a.k.a multimedia, and it plays with the boundaries of the real and the false, of the permanent and the ephemeral, of value and garbage.

Vuk ĆosićVuk Ćosić: ASCII History of Moving Images

One of the key thinkers who pondered over this process was Clement Greenberg back in the sixties, and I believe much of what he wrote is pertinent to our times and out Art, Internet Digital Art. So sit back, wash your Prozac down with some aspartame dietpop, and enjoy some internet art before tweeting your facebook friends about that neo-yoga class you will only do for four months before a new fad kicks in.

Explanatory notes before I begin

Albrecht-self
Albrecht Durer, self-portrait

Although I read the The Portrait of Dorian Gray years ago in my early twenties, one passage from the story remains an ever lurking shadow in my mind. It is when Dorian, becoming enamoured with a book ( a novel of some sort, I believe Huysman if my memory does not fail me), purchases many copies of it and has them bound in different colours. The reason behind this odd practice is a precautionary measure taken by our protagonist to avoid getting bored with the novel, as he well knew he was wont to with just about anything.

It was not boredom, or an aristocratic bout of spleenitis that perhaps ailed, at times, Dorian but an ever curious mind, a desire to see and taste it all.  Mr.Gray was addicted to the frisson of constant novelty, a freshness of the senses when old stimuli became pale and numb.

The reason perhaps this passage struck me with such force is that I instinctively recognized myself (as perhaps many do, although my personal interpretation may differ to others – art is but a mirror). The world is so full of the marvellous, of miracles, of holiness, of the aesthetic bliss of being alive, of the joys of free thinking…. and it is exactly this that makes it sometimes hard for me to stick too long on one point, on one research topic, on one book…. A peripatetic thinker you may call me, a gypsy constant sauntering among landscapes of ideas and thoughts.

This blog will contrive to stick to one subject and thus I will struggle with my tendencies to wander off in search of new topics (like our friend Dorian), although allowing an occasional walk down other paths when appropriate. In short, I will write a journal documenting my research process for the Masters in Digital Arts and Humanities I am attending at UCC, Cork.

My thesis, yet crude and shapeless of yet, will be about Digital Art and Internet Art, as well as other usages of the Digital by Art as a prime material (such as hypertext e-literature), and not just as a means to reach a wider audience. From the boundless apeiron of ideas, I can foresee that thinkers like Clement Greenberg and Walter Benjamin will help my path as well as previous art works that have dealt with ephemeral and interaction.

A blog is in someway a self portrait, albeit a literary and digital one. I hope the returning reader (or accidental wanderer) enjoys this blog experience as much as I hope to and gets to know a bit more about me and my research topic. I would finally like to add that all comments and participation are not only welcome but appreciated.