Friday, September 05, 2008

Aspects of Transmateriality: Specificity

Transmateriality is a notion I'm working on that treats the digital as always and everywhere material - embodied from "end to end" - while maintaining a sense of how the digital functions as if it were immaterial. The core idea is well stated by Kirschenbaum (blogged earlier): "Digital systems are material systems designed to support an illusion of immateriality."

My proposal is that this view of the digital as material is particularly useful in looking at contemporary media arts. It resonates with practices across visual and sonic modes, generative art, data aesthetics; for me it also connects with Gumbrecht's presence and its tropes of manifestation and revelation. I'm trying to frame it through a handful of aspects or themes, provisionally: specificity, transduction, presence, ubiquity, materialisation and propagation. These aspects are inevitably connected - I'll add the links as they accumulate. In this post, specificity.

The digital is premised on generality; the ability to transduce a pattern from one instantiation to another, such that the pattern is effectively (but only effectively) independent of its substrate.
As Kirschenbaum points out, computing machinery works hard to support this generality, with the careful tuning of tolerances and threshholds, and the active interventions of error correction. Without these mechanisms a million entropic, material variations would creep in; dust motes, temperature variations, mechanical wear, noise. (Note how often these relate to the materiality of the substrate.) These would be incursions of specificity into the digital: local accidents, conditions of this or that substrate. The aesthetics of glitch reveal the material specificities of digital media systems by focusing on these incursions and cataloguing their qualities. So while the digital in general relies on holding specificity at bay, there seems to be a wave of creative interest in the specific material conditions of how the digital is manifest. Glitch is one clear example, but so is fabbing - more on that later.

The screen is the ultimate general-purpose substrate of the media arts: a homogeneous, uniform, dense, self-effacing surface. Yet recently we've seen a wave of arrays that can be read as anti- or post-screens: special-purpose displays that acknowledge their physical substrates. Think of Troika's Cloud (or indeed Rokeby's Cloud), Daniel Rozin's mirrors (above, his Wooden Mirror), or Art+Com's kinetic array for the BMW Museum (video). These "displays" show a renewed interest in the specific conditions of the manifestation of data - its local materiality (even presence) - rather than its abstract generality. They are also open displays of transduction: they tease apart the elements of the display to show how each one is discrete, addressable; a single micro-instantiation.

Digital sound and music - especially where it is real-time performed / improvised - also illustrate this turn towards specificity. A musician's rig is often a highly specific bricolage of hard- and software, acoustic and material sources, diverse technologies patched together. Oren Ambarchi's networks of effects pedals, motorised cymbals, and vestigial guitars for example. Performance in this genre is focused again on the conditions of instantiation, on specific transductions again, and how these circuits are materialised, how they vibrate in the air and in the assembled bodies, PA, room. Music also shows the interplay of specificity and generality at work here (and in the visual examples) - in Hayles' formulation this is incorporation and inscription. I can download Ambarchi's recordings and listen to them in my lounge room; I can make a faithful transduction, store it, back it up, copy it to my phone (always still materialised). The specificity that marks the artist's process recedes and instead becomes content for the functional illusion of digital generality. And then as it is reincorporated, materialised coming out of the speakers, it's specific again, folded into the everyday present of the lounge room and the evening.

Transmateriality is a useful concept, I'd argue, because among other things it can encompass this whole process without introducing ontological distinctions (or magical transformations) between one kind of thing and another - between data and matter. How does our view of computation - and the media arts - change if we think of it all as ultimately the propagation of material patterns? This involves throwing all kinds of useful abstractions out the window, at least initially - like data itself for example, or software. But my hunch is that if we can suspend them temporarily, they might return in a more interesting form. Your thoughts welcome, as ever.


barvasfiend said...

This transmateriality/specificity business reminds me of Latour's actor-network theory. I don't know why that is, because I felt quite sure I had expunged all comprehension of ANT shortly after ingestion many years ago.

Then again, this also reminds me of cheese.

Mmm, cheese.

Where was I?

Mitchell said...

Yep bf I think you're on to something, though I haven't read Latour for years either. Both approaches are descriptive and try to use specific material relations to ward off essentialisms (for Latour "truth", for transmateriality perhaps "data").