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From Interactivity to Democracy. Towards a Post-digital Generative Art


In examining some trends and prospects in generative art and software art, which also relate to my work as an artist, I would like to start from three general considerations, without losing sight of the basic question posed by the conference: what meaning should be given to art today, and in particular to neo-technological art. The points I want to examine are the following:

1) Artistic production is becoming post-digital. In particular, what we call software art has now long passed through the experimental phase and has entered the diffusion phase; this is reflected both in the proliferation in the use of software in artistic production and in its growing integration into design.

2) Neo-technological art is not a set of homogeneous practices, but appears rather as a complex field converging around three main elements (the art system, scientific and industrial research, politico-cultural media activism). This applies both to new media art as a whole and to software art. So an anwer to the questions raised by the conference should take each of these tendencies into account.

3) Finally, I would like to look more specifically at the possibility of further developments in generative art. The evolution of the technological image, from photography to software art, follows a precise line: the static image becomes dynamic, it becomes a process, which as such is exposed to the action of external events and thus to the participation of the public in more or less advanced forms. I believe that the forms of this participation can be a decisive element in offering generative art and software art possibilities of development that will continue to be interesting.

1. Post-digital artistic practices

The post-digital character of contemporary artistic production is reflected not only in the shift in some artists’ interest towards other technologies (such as bio- and nanotechnologies) but also in the pervasive presence of digital technologies. The first phase of neo-technological art – experimental, pioneering, research-based – is now being followed by a phase of diffusion. This becomes particularly evident if we look at performative software and tools used to manipulate audio and video data, now being employed by a great number of artists: Max, Pure Data, vvvv (Vier Vau), Processing, etc. Some of these instruments make it possible to program using visual interfaces (graphic objects) instead of textual interfaces. This makes them more attractive and helps multiply the number of both artistic and commercial applications: the generation of audiovisual output, live media, vjing, and right on up to installations which enable the monitoring of electro-mechanical devices or the use of sensors to receive input from outside. While the use of compiled programming languages presupposes that the artists have a specific interest in technologies, systems based on graphic interfaces are often also used by artists for whom digital technologies are no longer a distinctive element.

This post-digital trend is likewise evident if we consider another aspect: the spread, through the new technologies, of aesthetic content at the margins of artistic production. There are works of locative media art which are now indistinguishable from non-artistic, management applications for the visualization and monitoring of certain data (for example, systems that survey and represent in real time the movements around the city of users connected to the mobile phone network). Analogous comments can be made about net art, which cannot always be distinguished from on-line content (user-generated content) produced and spread on the Internet by non-artistic users.

Similarly, in generative software art we are witnessing on the one hand a spilling over towards entertainment, and on the other a growing integration with design. Process-based design and algorithmic architecture have now passed through the experimental phase and begun to have practical uses which typically belong to the phases of spreading the results of research.

These introductory reflections are already sufficient to bring us back to the opening question. Quoting Naum Gabo and the Manifesto of Realism (1920), the conference presentation raises the question as to what today are the meaning and utility of artistic research and in particular of neo-technological art. The first answer lies in the fact that the question was not raised 10 years ago. It is raised today because neo-technological art is emerging from the experimental phase, and hence some of its potential is being attenuated. More specific considerations can be made by distinguishing between various tendencies in neo-technological art as a whole and in software art in particular.

2. Software art between art system, scientific research and media activism

For a long time neo-technological art, or new media art, was considered a homogeneous area of research, albeit divided into various manifestations, usually classified according to the technologies employed: software art, net art, virtual reality, etc. This was also suggested by the fact that almost all neo-technological artists shared a common denominator: their self-referential relationship with the new technologies, considered crucial because they were at the origin of epoch-making transformations (cultural, economic, aesthetic and political). This is, however, not enough to identify a homogeneous area of research. It seems to me that for over two decades now so-called new media artists have been moving on a territory that centres on three different elements:

1) media activism,
2) scientific and industrial research,
3) the art system.

Of course, many of these artists’ works are connected to one or more of these elements, but the distance from each of them seems to be an interesting factor in describing artistic production. I do not intend to go into this distinction with reference to the various manifestations of neo-technological art (on this subject, see M. Bolognini, Postdigitale, Carocci, Roma 2008), but I shall mention software art (I use the term here in the broad meaning of software-based art and the aesthetics of programming), to which many different things can be traced back, from applications of artificial intelligence to browser art, from code poetry to generative art:

– Let us look first of all at digital activism. In this case software art, especially on the Internet, has touched on important questions - such as copyright and security - experimenting with the re-use and the manipulation of existing softwares, the alteration of web browser interfaces, the corruption of datas, the aesthetics of failure etc. These are almost always low-tech works, involving practices of deconstruction and appropriation. Politico-cultural media activism is the essential reference point in understanding this software art.

– On the other hand, there is a kind of software art that is closer to scientific and industrial research. This is the art of those who deal with artificial intelligence, three-dimensional animations and simulations, and industrial design, which often uses high-tech resources and laboratory technologies, producing sophisticated software. In these cases the approach is sometimes so “constructive” as to blur the distinction between artistic and technological research. It is obvious that these two approaches differ in their nature and meaning. What used to be the point of all this, and what is the point of it today? Initially these art practices were useful to focus on the potential of the new media and their impact on the operating conditions of cultural production; later they helped us to understand, criticise and innovate the technologies both from the inside (the part closest to scientific and industrial research) and the outside (the part closest to activism). I am not sure whether this is still very important. Certainly it used to be more so in the developmental phase of these technologies. Activism on the Internet, in particular, produced the most interesting works in the second half of the 1990s – in other words in the crucial years of the development of the Web.

– Then there are the works and approaches which are situated closer to the art system, ranging from those that focus on changes in the spatial-temporal flows produced by digital technologies to those that relate to the production of images. In this latter case software art means primarily generative art, in which the artist establishes the functioning rules of devices which are designed to work autonomously. Generative art serves to produce unpredictable results, both when it is based on mathematical instructions contained in a code and when it uses other procedural rules. In the first case I think it is useful to distinguish: device-oriented generative practices, which focus on the generative process and device, by using software in a more conceptual and speculative way; and outcome-oriented generative practices, which privilege the end results (which are sometimes purely decorative visualisations which spill over into VJ culture). With the current spread of software for the manipulation of audio and video data, and generative production in real time, this tendency is growing fast (and this is not a marginal development as it seems to affect art as well as architecture: see for example the 11th Venice Architecture Biennale, Architecture Beyond Building).

What used to be the point and what is now the point of this art? As an artist I do not need art to have a foundation. It is enough for it to be there as a convention and a context (spaces, resources, audience) in which I can experiment with things which otherwise would have no legitimacy or visibility. Likewise with the new technologies, art is interesting to the extent to which it is a kind of “free zone” in which it is possible to carry out experiments which would be unfeasible elsewhere. What art has to offer (and software art is no exception) is the possibility to understand things in a different way, shifting boundaries, departing from established functions: art is more interesting when is at the edge of meaning. In the last analysis it is this that distinguishes device-oriented experimental practices from outcome-oriented diffusion practices, in neo-technological art in general and in generative software art in particular.

But in this case there is another aspect to be considered: this is the emergence of an effectual art, linked to device-oriented art practices. There are now many artists who see the symbolic and metaphorical dimension of a work as of little importance. With digital technologies, the work is beginning to move beyond the symbolic plane. It affects the device, the reality rather than the representation of reality. It is also interesting that this trend towards an effectual art seems to bring together radically different approaches in neo-technological art: on the one hand, there is the aesthetics of the machine, for example with generative installations making digital devices to work to no symbolic purpose, in a minimal and abstract way; on the other, there are more cutting and topically relevant works of digital activism. This is a trend that might change the very nature of the aesthetic experience.

3. Public generative art: from interactivity to democracy

Let us now consider the third question: the opening up of the generative process to the action of the public.

For some time now a certain number of curators and critics who are interested in digital culture have tended to put in the background the differences between media art and new media art (between technological and neo-technological art), often using very reasonable arguments about the need to avoid putting too many limits on the content of exhibitions and also on the careers of artists. We can readily agree with these arguments (which are perhaps a further sign of the current post-digital trend), but as long as we do not forget the specific nature of neo-technological aesthetics, which is linked first and foremost to the possibility of delegating our own action to devices that can operate autonomously, enabling us to take on the role of both artist and spectator.

Computer-based technologies make available something which moves in the direction of transcending the artist, creating a disproportion between the artist and his/her work. This is what suggested referring neo-technological art to the aesthetics of the sublime, which, in the 18th century, was linked to the grandness of natural phenomena. It must be borne in mind that the technological sublime does not belong to media art; it belongs to the art of the new technologies. It is a new version of the sublime in which, for the first time, the disproportion that we perceive between us and the external world can be partly controlled, fenced in, produced artificially, to the point of becoming experiment and spectacle, and art work. Generative software art is the most evident example of this possibility.

In his reflections on neo-technological aesthetics, Mario Costa (Il sublime tecnologico, Castelvecchi, Roma 1998; Dimenticare l’arte, Angeli, Milano 2005) not only identifies the technological sublime as the essential question, but places the accent on the “socialised consumption of the sublime”. This aspect has always been of particular interest to me, since I see the experience of the sublime as more attractive for the artist than for the public, precisely because the artist has the chance to pass instantaneously from the role of artist to that of spectator.

This possibility, though, could be shared with the public by introducing into generative art some forms of interactivity, thus experimenting with a more widespread consumption of the sublime.

To explain this better, I would like to make reference here to one of my own works. Almost twenty years ago I began working on my Programmed Machines, computers designed to generate unlimited flows of random images, which I programmed and then left to function indefinitely. At first there were very few computers, then in the 1990s there were hundreds of them and many are still at work. In 1992 I also began to seal some of these computers (closing the monitor buses with silicone) in such a way that they continued to produce flows of images which no-one would ever see. In doing this I did not consider myself as an artist who created certain images, but as one who was using the images produced by these installations to cover limitless surfaces and to generate out-of-control infinities: I wasn’t interested in the quality of the images but in their unlimited dimension.

(This can be considered as a fairly atypical example of software art, in which the device is activated in a way which is minimal and abstract. It is a use of the digital technologies which is certainly closer to the art system than to scientific research or media activism, and indeed these works have found more space in artistic institutions than at festivals).

In 2000, I began to connect some of these computers to the mobile phone network (in particular in the series of Collective Intelligence Machines). This enabled me both to redefine the device by including the action of the public, and to connect, again via the telephone network, various geographically distant locations, making interactive and multiple installations. In this case the flow of images was made visible by large-scale video-projections and the public was able to modify their characteristics in real time, by sending text messages to the system from their mobile phones. This was done in a similar way to certain applications used in electronic democracy (Fig. 1). What I had in mind was art which was generative, interactive and public.

Fig 1. CIMs: interaction structure
© Maurizio BOLOGNINI

Going beyond this example, the opening up of the generative process to the action of the public is a possibility that still has to be tried out. I mentioned at the beginning that the evolution of the technological image (from photography to digital generativity) follows a trend: the static image becomes dynamic; it becomes a process, a flow, which as such can be opened up to the action of the public.

Of course there can be different degrees of involvement in this participation: the action of the participants can be restricted to providing random input (by means of presence, the voice, movement, and various types of signals) which the system takes into account; or each person can express preferences, giving a direction to random changes produced by the generative process (as in so-called evolutionary art); or again, and this is the case that interests us most, the participants can act inside a device of collective intelligence based on advanced participation technology.

It seems to me that this last possibility has not yet been sufficiently explored. There are perhaps two main reasons:

– The first is that software artists have continued to think of programming codes more than the operating structures of which they form part. In short, they have almost always sought to reflect on the social and cultural implications of software starting from the software itself. A different approach is possible if we assume that what is important is not the “code” as such but the “device”, which is made not only of hardware and software but also includes the structure of the relations and the interaction processes between the people involved. From this point of view it becomes evident that there is no clear-cut dividing line between the technological device and the processes it activates.

– The second reason is that telematic art has addressed the theme of participation and collective intelligence (one of the most used concepts in the 1990s) through abstract declarations of intent which rarely corresponded to an interest in the functioning of the communication techniques deployed (their efficiency, their limitations, and the obscure dimension which links individual and collective intelligence).

More interesting in this context is the way in which the concept of collective intelligence was used in the first off-line, extra-artistic experiments conducted in the 1970s, where it was already clear that collective intelligence is not simply the sum of the individual intelligences that generate it but is a separate device activated by specific techniques of communication. Especially interesting are participation technologies taken from electronic democracy (such as real time opinion-convergence techniques and interactive decision-making) which are based upon three main features: recursive structure, feedback and statistical response (see M. Bolognini, Democrazia elettronica, Carocci, Roma 2001): in interactive installations (for example the Collective Intelligence Machines), this means that anybody can always change their mind and send new input (recursive structure), can see the corresponding output in real time (feedback), and in so doing they contribute to “decisions” (statistical response) that start up new cycles of images with different characteristics.

Up to now those who have dealt with interactive media installations and interactive architecture have concentrated on human-machine communication, neglecting any form of collective intelligence. Moreover, with the development of the Web in the 1990s, we got used to consider the term collective intelligence in an abstract way, independent of the techniques of communication deployed. I think that this could be now reconsidered to produce a leap in quality in interactive art, almost a change from interaction to democracy, that is, from interaction to decision, via interactive decision-making. A point that I’d like to emphasise is that a generative process based on collective intelligence can be even more surprising and obscure than a generative process based solely on software. I think this opens up the possibility of generative art which is interactive and public, in which even the instability and the technical limitations of participation devices (which in this context are bound to be used and misused, open to everyone) can represent an interesting aspect. I am thinking of installations at the crossroads between generative art, public art and mobile electronic democracy (participation technologies via mobile communication).

A similar kind of generative art continues to make reference to the aesthetics of the sublime, to that disproportion (and disjunction) between artist and work which I referred to earlier. But here this disproportion is not only software-driven, it does not simply concern the relationship between participants and the digital device (hardware and software), but between each of them and the expanded device (hardware, software and the public) of which they form part. This has ethical and aesthetic implications which perhaps (to come back to the subject of the conference) could give meaning and direction to the current spread of generative production.

© Leonardo/Olats, Artmedia X, Maurizio BOLOGNINI, 2009

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