Thursday, October 25, 2007

Technology, Presence Aesthetics and the Frame (more Gumbrecht)

Continuing to think through Gumbrecht's theories of presence and aesthetic experience, I want to focus briefly on his comments on technology, and especially media technologies, in relation to presence. Gumbrecht is understandably ambivalent: "I am trying to neither condemn nor give a mysterious aura to our media environment. It has alienated us from the things of the world and their present - but at the same time, it has the potential for bringing back some of the things of the world to us." [140] Gumbrecht links this alienation with a "Cartesian" desire for omnipresence - the decoupling of experience from the body. But he also suggests that "the more we approach the fulfillment of our dreams of omnipresence ... the greater the possibility becomes of reigniting the desire that attracts us to the things of the world and wraps us into their space" [139]. So the Cartesian tendencies of communications media drive us back towards a consciousness of, and a desire for "presence." This reaction is clear in new media art (and theory), which seems increasingly focused on embodied experience despite, or because of, its (critical) immersion in technology.

Elsewhere in Gumbrecht's writing technology, and even media art, crop up again. In a recent paper on "Aesthetic Experience in Everyday Worlds" Gumbrecht considers how presence-type experiences can manifest outside the stale, exhausted realms of Art, and perhaps bring about a "re-enchantment of the world."

It might be that, at the intersection between some possibilities offered by contemporary technology with that longing for re-enchantment ... we have a chance of discovering the potential for a much more dispersed and decentralized map of aesthetic pleasures, and of a much less "autonomous," stale and heavy-handed style and gesture of Art. ...

Should such a possibility exist indeed, much will depend on the capability of artists and intellectuals to avoid its transformation into a "program." For I am not talking of the complicated merits of new art forms like "video art" or "digital installations" here but ... of straightforward pleasures like driving a high-powered car, riding on a speed train, writing with an old fountain pen or, for some of us at least, running a new software program on the computer - pleasures that do certainly not require the institutional status of aesthetic autonomy." [316]

From a media arts perspective this passage comes over as a sort of theoretical rollercoaster. "Dispersed, de-centralised aesthetic pleasures" and the "re-enchantment of the world" seem like excellent descriptions of the aims, if not always the outcomes, of current media arts. But apparently not! The "complicated merits" of these "new art forms" (sheesh) are no good; give us everyday kinesthetic pleasures instead. And then a final twist: "running a new software program on the computer" might just qualify as one of these dispersed, non-Art aesthetic experiences - echoing one of the refrains of software art.

Gumbrecht is probably most useful for new media art when taken at an angle, rather than head-on. One resonant concept in this "Everyday Worlds" paper is the device of the frame, a "structural threshhold in the flow of our perception" that draws our aesthetic attention to a section or "view" of the everyday world; Japanese culture is held out as an example here. For Gumbrecht this ubiquitous frame is a key device for the potential re-enchantment of the everyday. There are some striking parallels here with new media practice. In the systems art tradition, the frame plays a similar role, isolating or condensing a zone of reality in order to draw our attention to its immanent dynamics. Hans Haacke's 1963 Condensation Cube (above) is the perfect example. In data art, too, framing is a central, constitutive process; in one (idealised) sense data art simply selects and presents segments of the real, with the implication - just like Haacke's Cube and the temple gates - that what's here, is everywhere else; that this beauty (or whatever) is ubiquitous, all-encompassing.

No comments: