Sunday, February 02, 2014

A Zombie-Pataphysical approach to histories of media art

(Based on a paper given at the 5th International Conference on the Histories of Media Art, Science and Technology, October 2013, Riga, Latvia)

The Anti-Kuhn: Post-Media Art, a Zombie-Pataphysical Approach

Thomas Kuhn’s argument that science proceeds with periods of dominant normality interrupted by paradigm shifts, where everything is uncertain until one paradigm becomes dominant (Kuhn 1962) is important and useful (Fig.1).
1. ‘Normal’ and ‘revolutionary’ science

 I use the title ‘Anti-Kuhn’ only in the sense that an antithesis is ‘against’ a thesis. Computer-based or new media art knows no ‘normality’. Every moment is revolutionary, every paradigm is up for grabs (Smith 1997). There is no time for the development of a critical discourse, nor to examine the flux properly (Fig.2).
2. Constant revolution

How to think and write about, make and curate, art that is undecidable? We make theories. But these theories, since they seem to be slightly more concrete than the chaotic flux of media art, instantly assume the status of fact, of monumental criteria for judging… something, never mind, quite, what. The theories are what we can handle best. (I have been to conferences about, for example, cognition in art, or histories of media art, where there were no artists involved at all, not one, and few artworks mentioned too.) This is mirrored in our avoidance of the concrete in social media. We use Facebook to show that we use Facebook and tweet to show that we tweet. We are the first generation to become less literate by reading, less seeing by looking, less listening by hearing, less communicating by talking, less social by using social media and less revolutionary by making art. All that is solid melts into air, as Marx and Engels predicted for late capitalism in their Communist Manifesto (Marx 1848).

When the Kunstkammern or cabinets of curiosities became offensive to post-enlightenment orderliness they were categorised in museums. You’d have though that order had replaced whim and chaos but it’s possible to see this curation more as a symptom of obsessive-compulsive disorder. The ‘objective’ museum could now categorise everything. But we know of course that there is no single objectivity and that categories can be whimsical. To misquote Borges, we can, for example, exhibit things which from a distance look like art. Too often, these categories were also symptoms of anxiety, which is nearly always quantitative and tends to see strangeness and complexity where similarity and resemblance might be more useful. As Gregory Bateson has said, when a crab has one huge pincer and one small one, it is still the similarity between the claws that is important, the ‘pattern that connects’, not the difference in a size (Bateson 1979).

So: if we can’t trust categories, and anyway that which is to be categorised is in a constant state of flux, what is to be done? I have referred to a ‘Zombie-Pataphysical approach’ in my title, and want to show two examples in my own art work as well as claim their use for making sense of new media art. So why Zombie, and what is ’pataphysics?

(First, an interjection: does any of this really matter at all? I believe it does, and here, as simply as I can state it, is why: if there is something in chaos, and those producing the processes and objects of, and discourses around, this chaos claim that even if it looks chaotic in fact it isn’t and might be really, really important in art and the world, then we have two choices. We can either use our habitual tools of ‘art thinking’ to try to make sense of it, or refuse to fragment wobbling jelly with a large mallet. As a practitioner and theoretician of computer-based art (part of but not the whole of new media), I have a professional obligation and a psychological imperative to make sense of what I and others are doing.)

’Pataphysics is the absurdist ‘science’ of the impossible, of the exception, of imaginary solutions to non-existent problems. I want to use certain ideas from that discipline to establish the possibility of a new approach to Post Media art, one needing no media at all, Post-Modem, Post-Everything. Paul Feyerabend’s arguments in ‘Against Method’ (Feyerabend 1975) and ‘Science in a Free Society (Feyerabend 1978) against methodologies in science (such as Kuhn’s and even more so Karl Popper’s) were based not on an absence of rules, but a basic undecidability between them. He wanted an injection of anarchic or dadaistic thinking. As Christian Bök has observed, ’Pataphysics dramatises Feyerabend’s ludic principle (Bök 2001) (as such, this is an excellent example of anticipatory intervention, rather than ’pataphysics’ beloved “plagiarism by anticipation”, used to describe pataphysical thinking before ’pataphysics.) Shall I then be arguing that if ’pataphysics is a sort of poetics of science, then that makes it a bit like art? Not at all. ’Pataphysics is no more poetic when applied to science, art or media, than is i, the imaginary square root of minus 1, applied to the real numbers (things like 2, 984, -13 and so on) to give complex numbers consisting of real and imaginary parts, at the basis of just about everything of practical applicability in mathematics. ’Pataphysics provides  space, permission (even obligation) to play games (and in doing so to discover temporary, psychedelic rules) and to slice things differently. As such it is a prime candidate for decomposing, deconstructing in fact, our methodologies for understanding the past, present and future of new media art, its objects, actors, histories, languages and so on. Confronted with, say, a study suggesting that it is of some value to correlate the redness or size of an artist’s paintings through time with, say, life events of that artist, ’pataphysics reaches for its revolver and shoots…bullets into a canvas; or slashes it (and then spends time sewing up the holes, the ‘Femme à Fontana’ project undertaken by Aline Gagnaire, a member of Oupeinpo, the art equivalent of Oulipo, under the umbrella of the Collège de ’Pataphysique, Paris). Another example of Oupeinpian work produced by Jack Vanarsky used the constraint of making the Seine, flowing through the French capital, a straight line, and seeing - showing - how that distorted the rest of Paris that surrounds it. Such an act is central to my thesis here. (Oulipo is the Ouvroir de Litérature Potentielle, or Potential Litterature Workshop: Oupeinpo is the Potential Painting Workshop.)

The development of the processes of the computer based arts is nonlinear, multi-dimensional, chaotic and ‘difficult’. If we treat it as a straight line, then we can do that, but it will distort - it does presently distort - all that surrounds it. If what surrounds it is first wilfully distorted, we might discover some truth.

Why Zombie? We are not too concerned here with brain-eaters. But they, the living daed, are a transgression, both totally alive and, impossibly, totally dead. They are both ‘yes’, and ‘no’. They are the answer ‘whatever’ to any question. They are a superposition of states. The ‘philosophical’ or p-Zombie, more useful here, is just like us, yet a Zombie. It is indistinguishable from us, there is no test whatever that could differentiate it from a normal human being; but it’s a Zombie. It has no ‘qualia’, no real feelings. Yet it is a perfect simulacrum of a human and again, you can’t tell the difference. We may all be Zombies, and we wouldn’t know it.

Zombies make excellent art critics and historians. They make all the right noises, but have no real feelings one way or another. Their aesthetic or other ‘judgements’ are just perfect, unconscious pretences. As such, they have no methodology, no a priori structure even though they might say they have, or look as if they have.

Let us imagine ourselves to be simultaneously such a Zombie art critic or historian and a pataphysician (I would assert of course that in fact that we are all both, without any exceptions, we just have to get used to recognising it). Then how might we proceed to look at computer art, made partially or wholly by machines without a soul at the behest of those claiming to be conscious, ethical, moral, aesthetically aware and so on?

The pataphysician (since s/he has nothing to do with the purely random) would take artworks, processes or concepts from this river of art, and use them reflexively, on the river itself, not to straighten it but to make it temporarily decidable and hence other than itself. But this alienation is utterly unlike that of those who would impose order and category upon it. This détournement or hijacking is full of glorious possibility.

The Zombie would shrug and say “whatever”. A deeply rigorous, defensible, rich, ambiguous “whatever”, however.

So I now want to take two Zombie Pataphysical themes from my own work and use them to construct a possible approach to ways of making sense of such computer based. The first is the idea of “Inside-Out”, in the sense that one can turn a glove inside out. With an image, one simply operates on it cartographically to map the edges to the centre (where they become infinitely small) and the centre to the edges, where it continues to infinity. Fig. 3 shows an example, an image of the moon turned inside out. The whole of space is at its centre. What is peripheral becomes central. What was central moves to the margins.
3. The moon turned inside out

That was done in two dimensions, but of course one can imagine, with some difficulty, such an operation in three dimensions, the core going to the surface and beyond, the outside moving to the centre. A sculpture of a glove could indeed be turned inside out, in some sense. But what would it mean for a text, a film, a piece of music to be turned inside out? The beginning and the end would be in the middle, the middle would be at the extreme start and finish. Or a novel, easier to manipulate? The first page and the last as neighbours in the middle, the middle two pages now the beginning and the end… and the same for a film. Imagine Casablanca like that: I am working on such a version using still photos of the entire film.

This is pataphysical because it uses a constraint to produce ultimate liberation (of the centre); and Zombie because it recognises that it is just a matter of fortune that the moon is as it is, and Casablanca was made with a beginning, a middle and an end, rather than a middle, an end, a beginning and another middle.

If we apply this to a history or vision of new media art we are immediately in Post-Media Art territory, because the structure loses all relation to a conventional linkage of means of production to some time-scale, and art-historical considerations are, literally, turned on their heads. Of course the result of turning a history of media art inside-out depends on what we started with. As an exercise for the reader, I suggest buying a second hand copy of a book purporting to be such a history, ripping out all the pages and replacing them so as to make a differently-coherent whole, with the beginning and the end now in the middle and vice versa. We love cause and effect, so this history might tell us that 1950s images on cathode ray tubes manipulated by analogue computers were the direct result of and neighbour of neuro-telematics. Or the other way round. And that 1970s paintbox art was still cutting edge, whilst fractals began it all. This is simplistic, but worth doing just on this single time dimension. Of course there are many other dimensions one can use, such as postulated adjacency to ‘conventional’ art movements. Did cubism influence Virtual Reality? Yes, in Pataphysical terms, and is certainly guilty of plagiarism by anticipation. And in a way, it did, did it not?

The second theme is that of “Out-betweening” or extra-morphosis, by analogy with in-betweening and metamorphosis. A cartoon mouse is drawn by some animation expert with its hand in the air, and then with the hand by its side. Lesser cartoonists - the in-betweeners - then draw a succession of hands (and arms) at positions in between, and when these are animated we see the character’s hand in motion. Or a triangle gradually morphs into a circle, losing its points and its sides inflating and curving. To go the other way would make a circle suck itself with 3-dimensional symmetry, and become more and more pointy. That too is in-betweening. We can do it simply on a piece of paper using a ruler and pencil, distributing points of interest on two shapes as we see fit, drawing lines between them, and measuring the midpoints of all these lines, then joining them up to make a figure that is 50% A and 50% B. Fig. 4 shows this process applied to a Z and a square.
4. In-between and Out-between

But what if the process did not stop (Fig. 5)? 
5. Circle and triangle morphing in and out

What if we let the lines continue, outside the two figures? And then measured the same distance outwards from B as we measured inside, between A and B, and then joined up the points again? What we now have - strangely - is 150% B, the Out-Between. Fig. 4 also shows this Out-Between. ’Pataphysics obliges us to consider such crazy notions, Zombie considers the Out-Between exactly as significant as any in-between. The amazing thing is that the new figure, the Out-Between, is in fact a caricature of B, as seen by A! Of course this can be taken very far, as an idea and tool. I have used this extensively in my own work, and again, not only visually.

Let us now consider how this process might be applied media art. We must search for two different paradigms, first in-between them, morphing them, and then apply Out-Between. Let us take two paradigms then, the first being that media art is is entirely a reflection and utilisation of available technologies, that it is technologically driven and determined. For example, if a cheap new method of capturing and analysing brain electrical activity via a headset emerges, there will be many new works of art that employ that, because it exists, and stimulates ideas about how it could be used. The second paradigm might be quite different, one asserting that it is the current of contemporary art that most influences new media creation: for example, if it becomes the Zeitgeist to use slow animation, or something to do with structures at the molecular or cosmic level, then media artists will use available technologies to try to do that kind of art.

We might call the first paradigm TD for Technological Determinism, and the second ZG for Zeitgeist. It is easy to morph one to the other. Remember that morphing can be of any A to any B, through some space which may be 2-Dimensional as in a drawing, or some more semantic space as in this case. We need not be rigorous, it is a qualitative, not quantitative phenomenon, even if calculation might sometimes be involved.

Let us then imagine that in between DT and ZG there is a paradigm P (Fig. 6). 

6. In- and Out-betweens of paradigms

We might say it is a bit of both. What happens to DT to become more like ZG? It would gradually rely less upon manufacturers’ PR, and more upon attention to contemporary art. It might use older technology, in old or new ways. It would not think that the cost of its systems was a criterion of artistic excellence…well it would a bit, because we are in-between the two paradigms. Similarly, the ZG paradigm would become more and more aware that the aura of certain kinds of technology can sometimes add artistic value to a project; and that a new technological possibility can actually connect with the artistic Zeitgeist to let new hybrid ideas emerge. A mixture of these two “compromises” or awarenesses is what P actually is. We might agree that most media art is more P than either TD or ZG.

Here is the power of this approach. We can now ask the question, in a way hidden until now: What is the space through which this morphing occurs - in other words, what is the ground for such paradigms and paradigm shifts? An answer might, of course, lead to a new awareness of how to structure new paradigms, a kind of unexpected brainstorming. In a moment, we shall consider what the Out-Betweens might reveal.

I would assert that based on the above, a likely dimension (this to simplify; of course the problem is multi-dimensional in n-D space) along which these changes (from TD to ZG) occur is simply one of the “technological presence” in the artwork. At one extreme, the TD end, we might have a walk-in booth covered in video cameras and screens, where touching the interactive sensitive surfaces changes the image of the visitor on the screens, who is seen touching the screens on which he or she is portrayed touching those very screens. This mise-en-abyme might be fun for a few minutes. At the other, ZG end, we might be confronted with what looks like a conventional installation of fur-covered objects in a room, but which senses movement and has face-recognition capabilities, and changes shape as we observe it. We don’t know how it does that, but people might stay some time interacting with it by looking or gesturing, trying to analyse what rules, if any, it was using.

We can imagine artworks, installations, at various points along this spectrum. Now, perhaps we can categorise examples of media art along this scale, and see how they, or artists, position themselves along that dimension, and what changes might occur.

To see how this might also be useful artistically, let’s take the Out-Between along this dimension. Remember that it’s like a caricature, as seen from the other end. So the Out-Between beyond ZG - a caricature of media arts that pay attention to current issues of contemporary art might be something like paintings done with a computer and water-colour plotter that are indistinguishable from those done by hand (this exists, the WaterColorBot). Only the paintings would be shown, not the process of producing them. Do we know other examples, across the decades, of art like that?

At the other extreme might be technology for the sake of technology, just set up in a gallery, doing its technological things and sort of pretending to be art. Do we know examples of that?

The idea, the paradigm-questioning act, now becomes: make an exhibition of works using these extremes only. By doing so, a new paradigm must emerge or suggest itself to visitors, and raise, recursively, the same questions I raise above. This would indeed be Post-Media Art.

I hope that I have shown that since the histories and paradigms of new media are chaotic, non-linear and in some formal sense ‘crazy’, then it is entirely appropriate to use crazy means - those of ’Pataphysics, of Zombie - to analyse them, to change them, to caricature them or turn them inside-out, to make more art, and to open the entire area up for a somewhat delirious discussion. Above all, we must see that making art with new media and analysing new media are, or could be, the same thing.


Bateson, Gregory. 1979. Mind and Nature, A Necessary Unity.  New York: Bantam Books

Bök, Christion. 2001. Pataphysics: The Poetics of an Imaginary Science. Evanston (IL): Northwestern University Press

Feyerabend, Paul. 1975. Against Method. London: Verso (4th edition, 2010)

Feyerabend, Paul. 1978. Science in a Free Society. London: New Left Books

Kuhn, T.S. 1962. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press

Marx, Karl & Engels, Friedrich. 1848. The Communist Manifesto. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, (2004)

Smith, Brian Reffin. 1997. Post-Modem Art in Mealing, Stuart, Computers & Art. Bristol, UK: Intellect (2nd edition 2002)

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