Saturday, July 12, 2014

Re: [Yasmin_discussions] Keeping works

It's great to see the generous spirit Frieder Nake expresses toward the artists of ReCode, who are trying to resuscitate works by pioneers like him. Frieder's post on 9 July also outlines some of the promise and perils of preserving software via such reverse engineering. The challenges of working with "unauthorized" preservation are a recurring theme of Re-collection, so I'm not surprised this has emerged in recent posts on this list.

Frieder touches on the fascinating concept of an algorithmically generated archive:

> You usually come up with classes (and this is, a program) that do contain the given image. But if they are executed, it will usually take trillions and zillions of years before the So we can give a perfectly well-formed new form for the old piece, a generative one, and we know the old piece is contained, but it is unrealistic to wait until it appears.

One of the final chapters of Re-collection examines this possibility, adding a twist from the world of wetware to suggest that the prodigious parallel processing capabilities of DNA offer a different way to achieve this process.

In a somewhat more realistic vein, Frieder writes:

> I have published flow-diagrams of quite a number of things I have done. Flow-diagrams are a high-level and totally machine-independent notation. Together with some educated human memory it would not all too difficult to re-code.

Absolutely--these diagrams dramatically increase the likelihood Frieder's work will survive into the future.

That said, I once asked computer scientist and emulation expert Jeff Rothenberg whether there might be some generalizable abstract language for this, and I recall him being skeptical. I can understand, because not everything can be reduced to an abstraction. Rick quotes Frieder's concluding aphorism:

> The abstract infinity becomes more important than the sensually perceivable finite piece.

Some folks seem to think this sort of sentiment summarizes the idea of variable media. As poetic as it sounds, I don't buy it. The variable media paradigm starts from an assumption not of universality but of differentiation. From this perspective, an artwork consists not of the Platonic essence to which every physical instance aspires, but the accumulation of attempts to achieve the artist's intent as rendered in different browsers, resolutions, durations, and publics.

>From a Platonic perspective, all of these attempts would be failures, in the sense that no material presentation could ever exactly match a thought in someone's head or a celestial equation. According to the perspective of variable media, however, a work is not a single idea, object, or experience but an unfolding series of triangulations between all three. As new media artists, our job is to keep making those triangulations; as curators and critics, we can judge some to be more successful than others.

I've argued that even so-called "Conceptual art" cannot attain the goal of cerebral abstraction--and that its best practitioners set out in fact to disprove its possibility. See my article "Where Did All the Uncertainty Go?" in the summer 1996 issue of Flash Art:

(Remember when the art world was ruled by sleazy art magazines? ;)

For concrete examples of creativity that stubbornly resists being reduced to a flow diagram, I'd point to the "forms of cultural resistance and subversion, DIY cultures, and other non-mainstream models of technology production" documented in the Subversion, Conversion, Development book by James Leach and Lee Wilson that Roger Malina mentioned. In his recent post on trolls, warez, and bronies, Dragan Espenschied vividly describes their parallels in Internet vernacular.

Rather than pooh-pooh these seemingly fringe developments, we should recognize their sweep and sway on contemporary culture. We should also realize that a number of artists now acknowledged as historically significant achieved acclaim precisely by playing with glitches and other specific aspects of a medium that are the antithesis of Platonic essence. Re-collection explains how the aesthetic of works from Nam June Paik's rewired TV sets to's hack of Google Maps depends on misusing technology for artistic ends--even if that fact makes these works especially vulnerable to technical obsolescence.

Given the vulnerability of media-specific art, it's reassuring to me that oral culture has its own strategies of perseverance--as hinted by Bronac Feren's priceless story about the mother who still knows how to use a dial-up telephone!


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