Beyond Materiality: A digital revolution in life, art and logos | CHRISTINA GRAMMATIKOPOULOU

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Our lives behind a radiant screen: photos, books, music… things that used to color up our personal space, resonating moments of the past and reflecting personality and taste, are now crammed onto the infinitesimal square millimeters of the hard disk. They can be multiplied intact, change place with one click, get converted through software or be forever erased without leaving a trace; the noise of the dust on the grooves of the vinyl disk, the smell of a new book, the yellowish paper of the old photographs, are experience more and more distant in this world of minimal matter.

In a parallel course, the artistic object strays out of museums, art spaces and high-class collections in order to become a desktop image, a saved file, data flowing on the Internet; every user can get it and transform it.

Art becomes more accessible than ever, especially if we consider the fact that many artworks are created in the computer and are designated to stay there, without ever escaping this immaterial digital world. Works that never reach materiality; they are transferred through the Internet, meet the public and change shape as they interact with it. In other words, every work of art -whether it has material substance or not- has somehow become a common and everyday thing.

Everyday life losing its materiality: Dematerialized objects, simulated experience and virtual identities

On the other hand, although we can have access to these digital data any moment we wish, they always escape our senses. A computer translates any kind of information into numerical data, saves it and subsequently reconstructs it in an understandable form that reproduces the familiar form of a photo, a video or a printed text.

However, a digital photograph -or a digital video- is very different from an analogical one: it’s not the registration of light onto film, but a synthesis of elements called “pixels”; the pixels correspond to numerical values according to their color and their place in the picture.

In other words, what we have is not a copy or a registration of reality, but a reconstruction of what’s visible:

“A digital image does not represent an optical trace such as a photograph but provides a logical model of visual experience. Its structure is one of language: logical procedures of algorithms through which data is orchestrated into visual form”[1].

The simulated experience of virtual reality emerges in a similar way: mathematical codes reconstruct a natural space or create an entirely imaginary digital world. The e-mails, the forums, the video games and every Internet page that requires the participation of the user, introduces us into a digital world of simulation. Inside this world we can enjoy simulated everyday experience -such as talking to friends- or go beyond the limits of reality by flying, going through walls or killing.

Fluid bodies, masks, images, illusions create a ductile world, where matter is replaced by codes, prone to any kind of change at any time.

Inside it, everybody has a virtual identity, consisting of network profiles, participation in forums, blog comments, involvement in on line games or works of Internet art.

In other words, the flight into the immaterial field of virtual reality is not some cultural change that takes place somewhere far from us, in museums or scientific conferences, but one that happens in our everyday lives. Every computer user is accustomed to digital images, videos and texts – hypertexts like the one you’re reading right now.


Binary Code

Code is poetry: An artistic route towards immateriality by means of technology

From object to idea: the path walked by 20th century visual culture, until today’s digital worlds were reached. What was lost in the way? What Benjamin calls “the aura of the object”[2], its uniqueness. For Benjamin this rupture with tradition wasn’t something negative, but an opening to new possibilities.

And the passage from material to immaterial, from tangible to digital, opens up these possibilities towards the infinite, because every work based on computer -and thus codes- can be endlessly transformed, as we shall see.

It is a new road towards immateriality, somehow different from the experiments of the conceptual artists of the 1960s: for them, escaping matter was a flight towards the world of ideas.

The research upon the relation of the artwork to the world of the Ideas is, as we know, a very old subject -also present in Plato’s “Republic”. The artist, ostracized from Plato’s ideal republic, eventually found his way back by turning from representation to idea.

According to Sol Le Witt, one of the most famous conceptual artists,

“the idea or concept is the most important aspect of the work […] The idea becomes the machine that makes the art”[3].

For Yves Klein the immaterial void meant freedom, open and limitless space and levitation; in other words, a rupture with the limits set by the material world[4].

If the conceptual artists of the 1960s could escape matter only moving towards the Idea, technology has opened up more possible routes. Contemporary artists can savor this infinite and open space, which was visualized by Klein, by entering the virtual worlds. Digital technology allows them to use image and video without limits, because behind the digital there is no materiality, just code. And theoretically code is limitless; the only limits are the imagination and the mental capabilities of the person that writes it.

This is why there’s more and more artists who also create the software necessary for their digital works. The artist-programmer is a figure that will become more and more common in the future -similarly as will happen with the author-programmer[5]. “Code is poetry”[6], creation…

A good example of an artist-programmer is Scott Snibbe. After studying Fine arts and Informatics, he focused on interactive art, that is, artworks that call for the audience’s participation in order to take form and life. Snibbe’s installation visitors are invited to interact with a computer that produces images, with the other visitors and their natural environment at the same time. This encourages them to cross repeatedly the limits between reality and virtuality, to become conscious of their bodies, to open up to their natural and social environment.

For example, the work “Social Light” (2008) is a software installation where rays of light are projected onto a screen. When the visitors walk between the projector and the screen, their shadows change the direction of light; then these shadows act like prisms that analyze the rays of light into the colors of the rainbow. The images created are then streamed through the Internet in the form of videos.

What is the artwork? Is it the software created by the artist especially for the installation, is it the participation of the viewers or the videos uploaded on the Internet? One of the characteristics of Interactive Art and Internet Art is that it’s limitless and shapeless, open to endless transformations. The participation of the public is important as well, because it gives form and color to the artwork. Thus, the dividing line between the artist and the audience becomes vague.

A parallel view in the realm of logos, reveals how digital technology has changed the balance between the writer and the reader by means of the introduction of hypertext.


CLICK on images to view videos from Snibbe’s Social Light

Towards an “Ideal text”: Hypertext changes writing and thought

Nowadays we are so accustomed to hypertext, that we never really consider its special features: that it has no definitive beginning and end -which means that we can “enter” and “leave” the text through various “entries/exits” -and that it has “hyperlinks” that transfer us to different texts. However, it is hard to imagine that long before the development of the technological means which would allow the invention of hypertext, philosophy theoretics and computer scientists had visualized a text with these features. Before we see how hypertext has changed the way we write and think, let’s take a look at some of these visions.

The first allusions to a text with features similar to hypertext appear in 1945, in Vannevar Bush‘s article “As we may think”[7]. In this article Bush foresees significant inventions, like the personal computer, the Internet, the World Wide Web and hypertext. According to him, the human brain works by association; so, in order to express human thought properly, we need a text with links that can lead from one notion to the other; the linking is content based -as opposed to indexing according to the alphabetical classification. When the mind captures a meaning or an idea, it recalls the most relevant known idea and thus moves on to the following thought, which is intrinsically connected to the previous one; this kind of mental activity can be directly reflected in hypertext[8].

Moreover, according to Bush reading is an active procedure: this means that as we read we are invited to add our thoughts and reactions to the texts we read. This is why he visualized a virtual -immaterial- text that would allow the readers to add their comments onto the original text -something very common today on blogs and the on-line editions of newspapers .

The term “hypertext” was introduced in 1963 by Ted Nelson, a philosopher and computer scientist. As early as 1960, long before the emergence of the technological means that would make it reality, Nelson started experimenting with a form of software for text processing, which would allow transclusion -this is the term used when the writer can introduce a text into another document through a hyperlink; this software would allow the readers to choose their own way through the text, without being limited by a predetermined beginning or end.

A few years later the computer scientist Andries Van Dam -who was working with Nelson- introduced the first hypertext system, the ancestor of HTML and the systems used today.

Beyond computer science, philosophers like Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault had visioned a text with similar features as hypertext.

Roland Barthes, in S/Z states the features of an ideal text in which

“the networks are many and interact, without any one of them being able to surpass the rest; this text is a galaxy of signifiers, not a structure of signifieds; it has no beginning; it is reversible; we gain access to it by several entrances, none of which can be authoritatively declared to be the main one”[9].

Similarly, Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida often mention in their texts terms that are nowadays related to hypertext, such as link, networks, web etc.[10]

A few decades later these visions were materialized by technology. A hypertext reader can follow the links and leave the original text, read a footnote and then go back to it or not. What was typed onto the margin of the page as a “footnote”, a secondary text, has now been given the same value as the “main” text, because it is presented as a full text[11].

The change introduced by hypertext into the international culture was considered so drastic, that it was characterized as the biggest discovery in the field of writing after the invention of printing press by Gutenberg. If typography made the book accessible to broader social strata -because at that time only the upper class had access to books- hypertext has multiplied the speed of knowledge diffusion.

Moreover, Internet users can publish their texts easily and share their thoughts with other readers. Thus, every reader becomes a potential writer and most often the distinction between writer and reader is abolished. Once more, we return to Roland Barthes’ vision of the ideal text:

“The goal of literary work […] is to make the reader no longer a consumer, but a producer of the text. Our literature is characterized by the pitiless divorce which the literary institution maintains between the producer of the text and its user, between is owner and its consumer, between its author and its reader. This reader is thereby plunged into a kind of idleness […]: instead of functioning himself, instead of gaining access to the magic of the signifier, to the pleasure of writing, he is left with no more than the poor freedom either to accept or reject the text: reading is nothing more than a referendum”[12].

In contrast, hypertext calls for an active reader, who has to face a series of choices: from simply changing the size of the fonts of the text, to wandering into the links provided by the writer, looking for relevant topics in the Internet and writing his/her own comments on the original text.

The reader’s comment on the original text, whether it is published on a personal page or a blog, is classified by the search engines according to its content. So, if another reader looks up in Google for the original text, he/she will come up with previous comments by others. This way, the comments gain an importance almost as great as the original text; every opinion can fire up a dialogue and an exchanging of views about the principal text.

This is the base for blogs, where every Internet user can publish personal articles, thoughts, links to other texts or videos, film reviews, news, any kind of information. Through the comments and the links emerges a virtual community with common interests, where the limits between reader and writer are shattered -every reader is a writer as well, following Barthes’ views on the ideal text.
Blogs and Twitter brought about a new kind of literature, “micro-literature”.

On the other hand, the fact that in a world wide web page different kinds of data coexist -text, sound, image, video- opens up an interdisciplinary dialogue between different sciences, which in the future will influence the way knowledge is created, diffused and acquired.

Getting back to our starting point and principal issue, the course from material to immateriality, we see that one of the consequences of the digital text is that for the first time writing is no longer marks onto a physical surface[13]. The text that we read on the computer screen is a series of codes, which acquire the form of a text for as long as we keep the document open. Hypertext is always a “virtual text” that calls for the mediation of multiple layers of software, so that it takes the form of a conventional text onto our computer screen. When we turn off the computer the text disappears from our eyes and exists only as infinitely small matter, electrons on the computer’s hard disk or the Internet.
In other words, hypertext has so minimal a material dimension, that it cannot be perceived by the senses.

As a result, a digital text is never something tangible and fixed; the writer can add new thoughts or erase it at any moment. Moreover, anybody could copy and acquire it easily. Thus, there come about a series of important changes in various aspects of the intellect, as in copyright issues and the concept of a text as something unchanging, with beginning and end.


Ted Nelson, Computer Lib (Double Front Cover)

As far as the last notion is concerned, a series of writers had tried to question it in the past. For example, Ted Nelson’s book Computer Lib[14] was printed in a way that it had two front covers -meaning that there was no beginning or end. Another magnificent example is Julio Cortázar’s Hopscotch[15]; in this book the reader can follow two alternate ways of reading, one from the beginning to the end of the book and another one indicated by the writer, which doesn’t follow the order in which the book is printed.

However, the material dimension of paper never let these efforts open up to endless reading possibilities; in contrast, hypertext sets no limits on the written text and subsequently on the freedom of the reader to follow any way of lecture. Alexander de Querzen gives us a taste of this limitless freedom in his Intimate diary of a killer[16].

De Querzen decided to publish his book exclusively on hypertext. The book is the diary of a serial killer, Simon. Although in appearance it keeps the familiar form of a literary text, we are actually facing something new: the book has no visible beginning, middle or end. Every time we enter the homepage or every time we renew it, the order of the chapters changes. What is more, we are not sure as to whether what we see on the web page is the entire “diary” or just a part of it. Toying with this uncertainty, the writer has added new chapters to the book during the last two years, always making sure that the evolution of the story remains open.

The main text is complemented by visual material[17] and, ironically, some pages have the form of a manuscript -an allusion to the first form of writing within the frame of the most sophisticated technology.

It is a game between the writer and the reader, and not the only one: A decisive part of the form of the book is the fact that De Querzen “censors” some sections of the text with black or red lines. If the readers move their cursor above the red lines, the description of an explicit sexual scene is revealed. If they move it above the black ones, they come across a scene of violence [CLICK on the links given here to view excerpts from the book].

This means that the book calls for an active reader, who looks for the order of the story by following barely visible traces; a reader that decides whether he/she wants to submerge into the most raw and violent reality by reading behind the “censored” lines. A wink of the writer towards his readers: Can anyone resist a look into the dark side?

It is important to explain that these novelties in the form of the book are invented and introduced by the writer himself; Alexander de Querzen is an author-programmer, and thus has the ability to create a text where form and content are intrinsically connected between them.

Intimate Diary of a Killer shows how hypertext can materialize Ted Nelson’s visions about a text with no beginning or end and Roland Barthes’ ideas about a text that gives freedom and initiative to the readers.


CLICK on the image to go to Alexander De Querzen’s Intimate Diary of A killer. Image published courtesy of Alexander de Querzen

The digital worlds opened up in front of our eyes, no matter what they contain -texts, art, platforms for everyday contact- call for our participation. They transfer us to a universe of infinitesimal matter, where complex codes convert invisible electrons to worlds that are always familiar and forever out of reach. Despite the sophisticated software required to turn the code into a familiar reality on screen, the most important catalyst to experience this world lies beyond technology: it is our thought and imagination.

FOOTNOTES

[1] George Legrady, “Image, Language and Belief in Synthesis”, Art Journal, 1990.

[2] Walter Benjamin, “Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit”, Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung, 1935

[3] Sol Le Witt, “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art”, Artforum 5, no.10 June 1967, p.79.

[4] Christina Grammatikopoulou, “Leap into the void: Wim Wender’s heroes and Yves Klein Levitating”, Interartive # 5, December 2008. http://interartive.org/2008/12/yves-klein

[5] These terms are mine. I introduced them in order to define artists or authors who create the appropriate software or webpage interface that materializes their artwork or text. As examples of such creators I mention here Scott Snibbe (artist-programmer) and Alexander De Querzen (author-programmer).

[6] “Code is poetry” is the moto of WordPress.org, a Content Management System

[7] Vannevar Bush, “As we may think”, The Atlantic, July 1945. You can read the text online: http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/194507/bush

[8]George P. Landow, Hypertext 3.0: Critical theory and new media in an era of globalization, The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore 2006, p.10.

[9] Roland Barthes, S/Z, 1974, p.5

[10] Landow, op.cit., p.52.

[11] Landow, ibid. p.8.

[12] Barthes, op.cit., p.4.

[13] Landow, op.cit., p.34.

[14] Theodor H. Nelson, Computer Lib, South Bend, Indiana 1974

[15] Julio Cortázar, Rayuela, Paris 1963

[16] Alexander De Querzen, Intimate Diary of A Killer, published on line from 2005 and onwards on http://www.intimatediaryofakiller.com

[17] Like, for example “Simon’s manuscripts” mentioned here and the design made by the writer himself.