Friday, October 12, 2007

Presence Aesthetics and the Media Arts - First Thoughts

Following Gumbrecht's candid approach, I'll be autobiographical for a minute. I've been trying recently to frame what it is that unites all the practices I'm interested in (and that this blog has been covering): generative art, glitchy / improvised / realtime sound, music and audiovisuals, "fused" or "synaesthetic" AV, data visualisation and sonification, live coding, software practices, systems art. I've been trying to use "inframedia" as a point of connection - this idea of art that refers to, or rather manifests or makes present its own underlying systems. Presence, or at least what Gumbrecht calls "presence effects", might be a more powerful and elegant way to express the same connection.

This work seems to be seeking out those moments or sensations of intense presence that Gumbrecht describes as aesthetic experience. This is no surprise - if Gumbrecht is right then all art pursues those moments. What unites all these practices is a sense of making-themselves-present that we can contrast, again following Gumbrecht, with "meaning culture" uses of the same systems. To pick a more or less arbitrary example, consider Carsten Nicolai's Telefunken (above - image from here). In its released form, the work was an audio CD carrying a signal designed to generate both video and audio; plugging the Telefunken CD into your TV set makes the TV/CD media system, and importantly the signal, present. Flip to broadcast television and you're back in "meaning culture." The point of intensity that Telefunken can induce is precisely a sense of presence, of a circuit of (electronic / audio / visual) materials being themselves. Not (at least not wholly) a sense of the work as an artwork, a manifestation of artistic will, a general or specific commentary on media or art, a self-conscious performance of media-hacking. All those elements are latent in the work, but on the "meaning" side of this binary. In a sense they follow on from that moment of intense presence that, in this work and others like it, seems to be primary. Like Gumbrecht I'm not outlawing interpretation (what critic or theorist would?); instead there's an "oscillation" between presence and meaning. The key is that this theory asserts presence as an autonomous or incompatible mode of experience. Presence can be interpreted, but not interpreted away.

How does data art fit with this schema? There are some striking conjunctions around modes of knowledge. One characteristic of Gumbrecht's "presence culture" is that "legitimate knowledge is typically revealed knowledge. It is knowledge revealed by (the) god(s) or by difference varieties of what one might describe as 'events of self-unconcealment of the world.'" And this is an unconventional form of knowledge: "substance that appears, that presents itself to us (even with its inherent meaning), without requiring interpretation as its transformation into meaning." [81] We can find a similar sense of revelation in artists' discourses around data art; a sense of the revelation of what is inherent in the data; and a transcoding between data-substance and sensory material. Lisa Jevbratt described her data images as "abstract realism" and "objects for interpretation, not interpretations" (the image above is from 1:1). Data art seeks out "events of self-unconcealment of data" - data as materially present. Data artists typically defer or avoid attributing meaning to the data material (though as I've also argued, meaning always leaks in); once again we find an oscillation between presence and meaning, but an emphasis or movement towards the presence side of the binary. We could align, more or less, presence and meaning binary with the data/information distinction I've used recently to critique this practice.

What about generative art? My hunch is that presence is relevant here too, and it has something to do with the generative process; it's that process, and the model or system it entails, that presents itself in generative art. In Jonathan McCabe's Butterfly Origami works (above) we see a complex visualisation of a generative process (an accumulating series of spatial folds and transformations). If there's an aesthetic experience - a moment of intensity - here, perhaps it is some kind of felt revelation of that process. Again we can pursue the work's ramifications on the meaning side, at both the image and system level; but these seem secondary to me. There's much more to do in thinking this through; are there any obvious counterexamples, cases where generative art is not a materialisation or making-present of its own system?

Gumbrecht identifies music as a form in which the "presence dimension" is dominant; as a lapsed musician this seems intuitively right to me. It's interesting then that music plays a role, either as disciplinary background or aesthetic model, in much of the work that I've written about here. My AV poster boy Robin Fox is a practicing musician; his signal visualisation practice (above) is a clear extension of his sound-only work. Peter Newman is a musician and painter. Speaking in 2005 about his work Drift, Ulf Langheinrich comments: "I try to create music ... It is almost like a CD, but visual. And when I see the image, I think this doesn't really need much sound. The reason is that the image is the music - the music is happening there on the screen, so I don't need to amplify it with another source." Contemporary generative art is always nestling up to music; I have a hunch that this affinity is more than superficial. Angela Ndalianis emphasises the visual and representational in her account of neo-baroque aesthetics (blogged earlier); but perhaps the musical aesthetics of the Baroque, which manifest moments of real sensory intensity within abstract formal constraints, are a closer analogy for generative art?

The theory I'm fumbling for here is: that there are practices across all these forms - digital sound and music, audiovisuals, data art and generative art - that are unified by an aesthetics of presence. They push against "meaning culture" by simply manifesting themselves, seeking out moments of embodied intensity in concrete networks of media and computation. More to follow; meantime, as always, thoughts & counter-arguments very welcome.


Kyle said...

I don't think "presence" is the best word. "Presence" makes me think of someone being nearby. Not necessarily being engaged or sharing themselves, just being there.

The idea you're describing seems more like the inverse of embodiment. Something about the work being "self-aware", engaged, and turned inside out.

I have the same intuitions about these "diverse" approaches being fundamentally the same — variations of transcoding. (I wrote a short paper recently exploring this possibility: pdf).

Mitchell said...

thanks Kyle - on "presence", maybe I'm not conveying Gumbrecht's ideas adequately, but they feel right to me! Think of it as the presence of the world, not of a person - and of an intense moment of feeling in contact with the world. Gumbrecht locates it after "perception" but before "experience" in the subjective pipeline.

re. transcoding: I'll check out the paper - thanks. How would a transcoding framework account for generative art or (for eg) live coded audio?

Kyle said...

I really have to read more of Gumbrecht — but I think I see what you're describing.

Generative art works from initial conditions, with rules, to produce output. This follows the input-transformation-output pattern of transcoding. The only other general note I would add is that lots of generative art applies the transformation recursively or iteratively.

Live coding for audio is essentially a type of programming. Programs always follow the input-transformation-output pattern (in this case, from text to audio). I would analyze live coding slightly differently than traditional programming, though, talking about the code itself as the input. The transformation would be the realtime compilation and synthesis.

Anonymous said...

I think you are definitely on to something quite interesting here. Particularly in respect to digital sound and music (which is probably just because that's what I've been bound up in), although I would suggest that there is nothing inherently digital about an interest in 'presence' and it is actually something that has been emergent in electronic music, and indeed other genres, for some time. Gumbrecht suggests that time is the 'primordial dimension' for 'meaning' culture and space the 'primordial dimension' for 'presence' culture so I think it is also significant that the artists you mention, and other like them, generally avoid characteristics of so called 'horizontal' music in their work (melodic development and linear developmental structure for example) in favour of more 'vertical' characteristics such as drone based or repetitive structures and explorations of 'density' through equalization and granular processes.