Digital art loses its way

Trying to define digital art through scientific means is a fruitless exercise, says Peter Hall, which only serves to complicate issues when we should be simplifying them.

There was standing room only at the New York Guggenheim SoHo museum’s digi-symposium, The Space Between, earlier this month. Several hundred people felt it was worth sacrificing dinner and $10 for two hours in the echoing museum lobby gazing at the giant video wall and a panel of speakers. The only palpable explanation for the huge turnout was the cachet of the theme; a discussion about cyberspace and how to map it.

The museum’s website promised an illuminating orientation of that chaotic land of the Internet: a panel of artists, designers and curators presenting “interactive maps” of this “new frontier” and discussing their political and philosophical implications.

Since one of the speakers was Simon Pope from the London design group IOD, creator of the much talked-about Web Stalker (an alternative browser), I decided to follow the crowd.

About half way into the presentations, I realised my best chance of orienting cyberspace was to follow the museum map out of the building. The first three speakers seemed to be doing their best to demonstrate that establishing a cartography of the Web is an arbitrary exercise yielding dreary displays of self-indulgence.

If maps have political and philosophical implications, the message of these cybermaps hadn’t progressed much beyond “look at all these links! See how many there are!”

The New York digerati is obviously still beguiled by the novelty of networks and their opportunities for quasi-scientific representation. Curator Laura Trippi’s Intelligent Life map was exemplary, attempting to show the “convergence of technology and biology” using the metaphor of a “neural net”, a method of computer programming modelled on the interconnected neurons of the human brain.

“Digital technologies allow math to model complex, sensitively interdependent dynamic systems, in which cause and effect are non-linear,” explained Trippi. In reality, we were looking at Laura’s favourite websites arranged to resemble a scientific diagram.

Why has the art world fallen for pseudo-scientific mumbo jumbo? Is it for the prestige that results from dropping esoteric mathematics terminology into conversations, books and lectures?

I was delighted last year when a physicist friend showed me a copy of the spoof essay published unwittingly in the Post-Modern journal Social Text. Written by the physicist Alan Sokal, it did a skillful job of mimicking the language deployed by French intellectuals like Jacques Lacan and Jacques Derrida, crammed with meaningless references to ideas in physics and mathematics to support arguments like the one that scientific truth is a social construct.

In Sokal’s new book Fashionable Nonsense, he goes all out to demonstrate Lacan and co’s utter lack of comprehension of the scientific ideas they are misquoting. Having struggled for years with the notion that I was missing something, it was most reassuring to read Sokal’s comment: “If the [Post-Modern] texts seem incomprehensible, it is for the excellent reason that they mean precisely nothing.”

Perhaps, for once, there is a lesson for digital artists and curators in design. Rarely has there been a product design movement, for instance, that sought to make science and technology look more complicated: the art of the designer is generally that of making the complicated simple.

The only presenter at the Guggenheim who seemed to be edging in this direction was Simon Pope, whose group’s Web Stalker browser actively strips away all the crap (the ads) from websites, allowing the user to extract text and view it in a white box on a clean black screen.

Admittedly, the tree diagram of links that Web Stalker users need to navigate is overtly complicated, but this is more a political statement. In effect, Web Stalker is a cartographer’s resignation note, acknowledging that any attempt to map cyberspace is doomed to subjectivity.

In the mass market computer world, there has been a shift toward simplification through design. Apple’s iMac and forthcoming laptop aim to cut out all the inessentials from the consumer machine in favour of simplicity and levity. Hewlett Packard is running an ad for its Jornada hand-held PC that lists the five activities that people most use computers for, next to 40 plus (unused) features of a laptop.

Surely it’s time for the digital artworld to follow suit and stop holding symposiums about the wonderful complexity of networks. To me, they have become as exciting and relevant as watching a bunch of telephone engineers discuss call routing.

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