When it is claimed that works of art are immersed in a virtuality, what is being invoked is not some confused determination but the completely determined structure formed by its genetic differential elements, its ‘virtual’ or ’embryonic’ elements. The elements, varieties of relations and singular points coexist in the work or the object, in the virtual part of the work or object, without it being possible to designate a point of view privileged over others, a centre which would unify the other centres.” Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition1
The “interactivity” of digital aesthetics is commonly understood to shift the ground of the artistic project away from “representation” and toward “virtualization,” away from “resemblance” and toward “simulation.” Rather than celebrate the art object’s imitation of nature, its adherence to well-established artistic genres such as still-life, landscape, or portraiture that set the parameters of “resemblance,” or even its perspectival solicitation of spectatorial attention and wonder (consciousness and taste), digital aesthetics can be said to position the spectator on the threshold of the virtual and actual.”2 As put succinctly by Pierre Levy, the image thereby “abandons the exteriority of spectacle to open itself to immersion.”3 The key concept here is not so much the stasis of similitude as the speedy interface of identity and difference occurring on an evershifting plane of difference and divergence. The promise of digital aesthetics is its enhanced zone of “interactivity” through which the users’ entry into the circuit of artistic presentation simulates or projects their own virtualizations, fantasies, and memories in consort with the artwork. Already in 1968, Gilles Deleuze was articulating just such an aesthetic when he theorized “elements, varieties of relations and singular points [that] coexist in the work or the object, in the virtual part of the work or object, without it being possible to designate a point of view privileged over others.”4 What Deleuze imagined as possible at the pivotal moment of 1968 might be understood, now at the pivotal beginning of the new millennium, as having come to material fruition in the interactive aesthetics of CD-Rom and virtual installation.
Underlying the radical potential of new media, however, is a paradox that I believe lies at the core of digital aesthetics. While opening the artwork to the virtual dimensions of the digital threshold, a substantial number of electronic artists are just as faithful to the preservation, investigation, and analysis of the artistic archive and its dependence on prior codes of representation, resemblance, and analogy. These works open themselves to the virtuality of the future only in relation to their dedicated refashioning of past codes of similitude and resemblance. A poignant testimony of the promise of such an approach is voiced by Francesc Torres in describing his video installation, El Carro de Fenc (Barcelona, 1991). He understands his combined reflection on Bosch, the decline of monastic power, and the tragedy of Tiananmen Square in terms of his assessment of the temptation of the American avant-garden of Eden to reject the social resistance of his Catalonian past:
Landing in the country of the infinite present was a rite of passage which washed off the accumulated dust of the journey but did not wipe out the memory. When one is left without history, one has the chance to invent a new one or reconstruct the old one. Europe exerted its pull so I opted for the second alternative. After having dissected the butterfly with a hammer, I plunged into the terrifying task of putting its vision back together again under a microscope . . . one also discovers that what is lived through the experience of others means that events older than ourselves can speak to us with the tangibility and eloquence of the physical, of the present.5
It is in this context of looking back to the past to reach into the future that my research has prompted me to reflect on how new media art incorporates earlier themes and methods of representation as a means of articulating cybernetic paradigms of artistic place, subjective space, and political practice.
Such articulations are often dependent on, or open themselves to fresh dialogue with, subtle concepts of resemblance that are particularly helpful to understanding our post-modern interactivity with the virtual.6 In evaluating electronic art’s understanding of its links to the past, critics need appreciate the historical and ideological complexity of the “new” apparati of digitized electronic arts in relation to the future promise of the digital reconfiguration of historical methods, artistic icons, and cultural memories, not to mention the role played by new interactive art in addressing the challenges of lost memories, traumas, and their counter-narratives of vision and utopia. It is in the spirit of Torres’s project, then, that I wish to suggest that any analysis of digital interactivity must dwell critically on and in the metaphors and architectonics of resemblance, identity, point of view, and societal place whose complex, historical roots continue to haunt and inform even the most utopian projects of virtual interactivity. “Far from revealing the blinding light of pure Being, or the object,” writes Maurice Merleau-Ponty in The Visible and the Invisible, “our life possesses an atmosphere, in the astronomical sense of the word: it is constantly enveloped in a shadowy haze which one calls the sensible world or history.”7
To produce such an electronic haze of the sensible has been the compelling and sometimes misunderstood aim of many electronic artists whose work often opens up spaces for ongoing reflection of the complex links between past history and future interpretation. Perhaps the digital helps to foreground the complex layerings of psycho-social identities that can be thought in space only in so far as they will have been, as they stand in the past only in relation to their virtual illumination in the future. The technical ability to enfold the vicissitudes of space and time in the elliptical repetition of parallel structure might be the most novel feature of the horizon of the digital. Such enfolding opens the discourse of memory to multiple registers of time, space, and national identity which are simultaneously present on the screen of representation perhaps for the first time. Gilles Deleuze concludes both Cinema 2: Image-Time and The Fold: Leibniz and the Baroque by reflecting similarly on the linkage of the growth of new machines in the social field to the political chao-errancy of cinematic world-memory and its potential nomadism. Through digital machineries, Deleuze believes, the panoramic organization of space loses the vertical privileging of direction, and the screen becomes a curvilinear data bank through which information and its methods replace nature, and the “brain city” becomes subject to the perpetual reorganization of world-memory and its radical intensities. For an appreciation of the variety of approaches to the digital reorganization of such intensities, I would like expound on these introductory remarks in relation to analyses of work on CD-Rom by five artists: Jean-Louis Boissier of France, Norie Neumark of Australia, and Perry Hoberman, Miroslaw Rogala, and Reginald Woolery of the USA.
Digital Fetish/Sensorial Cartography: Jean-Louis Boissier
As if picking up on one of Deleuze’s theses that the baroque is linked to the digital in relation to “a crisis of property, a crisis that appears at once with the growth of new machines in the social field and the discovery of new living beings in the organism,”8 the French digital artist, Jean-Louis Boissier, turns his attention to the early modern legacy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau to reflect on the historical intensity of the reorganization of sight.9 In his digital installation, Flora Petrinsularis (1993-1994), a shiny brass reading lamp illuminates an open book of sheathed papers and pressed flowers.10 Leafing through two loose-leaf volumes of sixteen double pages, viewers can read selections of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s erotic and turbulent accounts from the Confessions or admire the craft of Boissier’s physical reconstruction of the natural herbier created originally by the eighteenth-century author during his political exile <http://contactzones.cit.cornell.edu/artists/boissier_flora.html>. Positioned behind the book and its comforting reading lamp is a sculptural monument to the electronic garden, an Apple monitor with matching speakers. The visual lure of the Apple is triggered by a camera built into the book’s reading lamp that tracks the number of each newly opened page to match the text or herb with a digitized counterpart of textual passages, moving images, and sounds. A track ball, mounted on a small brass railing directly in front of the book, can be slid back and forth by the viewer to catalyze the interactive computer program.
Unsettling this installation’s nostalgic display of a cozy baroque reading room are the luminous electronic machineries sitting in front and behind the book as if to serve as the new digital bindings of Rousseau’s texts. As readers move in and out time, from the idyllic age of enlightenment to the digital era of virtual luminescence, they find themselves caught in the voyeuristic ebb and flow of a journey between the textual imaginary of sensuous confession and the ocular proof of natural history. Their manipulation of the seductive trackball reduces the text to its most erotically dense sequences. It fixes the eye on the precious details of nature and beckons the virtual timbre of wind and water or the subliminal sounds of rubbing and panting. These are the sounds accompanying split-screen, Quicktime displays of Rousseau’s sensual visions which vary in speed, luminescence, and close up.
In recreating the textual point-of-view of Rousseau, digitized video clips review the fetishistic images that so stimulated Rousseau’s erotic imagination. In one sequence, a video close-up of hands gloved in delicate lace tracks Madame d’Epinay’s ambiguous gesture that either ties or unties the ribbon of a package; the screen then splits to reveal her close-up profile looking left, then a close-up of her mouth, then a close-up of her v-shaped hands over the package. Another sequence <http://mistralculture.fr/culture/biac95/fr/boissier.htm> shows the bodice of Mademoiselle d’Ivernois falling to reveal her breast; this is then juxtaposed with a shot of the ribbony lace of an undergarment being loosened, then a 3/4 portrait shot of a woman looking into the camera, then a close-up of decorative ribbon tied around her neck. So as not to leave the scene of primal trauma entirely inscribed in the “to-be-looked-at-ness” of woman, there is also a close shot of a man rubbing his ear, then a hand gripping an armpit accompanied by panting sounds, then a profile of a quivering man with closed eyes, followed by a shot of his neck, all of which is preceded by the textual extract recounting Rousseau’s youthful struggle with a man who let fly some kind of whitish, sticky liquid at the moment of their separation. Even though these video sequences loop back to repeat themselves, the loops skip the initial “establishing” shots thus returning the viewer only to fetishistic fragments of the lost memory of what came before. While returning reading and viewing to the certainty of its manual roots, to the masculinist caress of page or trackball, this neo-baroque electronic installation thus ensnares the confidently desiring subject in the cybernetic loss of narrative control as signaled by the fetishistic objects that pulsate in Quicktime and voice-off as if to destabilize the look of the gaze through its return in look and sound. Such capitalization on the digital platform as a means of transforming the passive viewing experience into an aleatory space of interactive sound and vision has been extended most recently by Boissier in his most recent hypermedia installation, Second Promenade <http://www.kah-bonn.de/1/28/0e.htm>. Departing from Rousseau’s traumatic account of having been knocked over by a dog while walking through the countryside, Boissier here re-presents the “angles” of Rousseauesque vision while foregrounding the digital paradox that empowers viewers while subjecting to them to the logic of the code and the “accidents” of interactivity.11
Like the eighteenth-century precedent of Rousseau’s “promenades” and the contemporary experiments of Boissier’s digital installations, Boissier’s electronic Flora Petrinsularis sensitizes its users anew to the many fetishistic interrelations of reading and viewing, language and image, idea and material, subject and object. At all times, Boissier insists, “the fetish objects are just an intermediary, allowing the imagination to construct a presence of greater intensity than reality itself, available at leisure in solitude and innocence.”12 The unpredictable results of this digital journey of sight and touch always position the user on the unstable site of the between: between now and then, between actual and virtual, book and CD-Rom, between image and fetish, between reading and voyeurism, between look and gaze, between female and male. When the viewer is literally between passages while manually turning the page, moreover, the computer registers an “error” and catalyzes a crystal image of clear water and rocky lake bottom accompanied by the rhythmic sounds of water lapping against a boat. This combined textual/CD-Rom interval, this literal moment of the in-between, thus stages the primal condition, the “reveries with no distinct subject,”13 of Rousseau adrift in his boat.
Boissier emphasizes how the new technical organization of the computer provides a “sensorial cartography” of the interactive image.14 For readers of Rousseau’s Reveries, digital video technology provides for an exact recreation of the “flat” viewing angles from which Rousseau rediscovered nature. Boissier duplicated these same angles for his video peep show that displays the fetishistic gaze so central to the libidinal machinations of the Confessions.15 Similarly, the 32 double pages of Boissier’s loose-leafed book correspond to a digital volume of more than 10,000 screen-pages whose electronic animations underscore their virtual autonomy. His creative use of software also permits Boissier to display his sense of the haptic ambiguity of digital designation (that to point the mouse or to move the trackball gives renewed entrance to an image but not necessarily its confident possession). Through Boissier’s new regime of what he calls “a dramaturgy of interactivity,”16 the viewer leaves Flora Petrinsularis with a sensitive coda both to deciphering digital culture and to reading Rousseau: that the greatest proximity equals the most exaggerated fragmentation. Perhaps this is why the CD-Rom highlights Rousseau’s description of Madame de Warens: “The Gentleman saw something quite different which was easier to see than to forget.”
Phantasms of Film and Photography: Perry Hoberman and Miroslaw Rogala
Perry Hoberman’s CD-Rom, The Sub-Division of the Electric Light,17 similarly positions the user at the interface of vision and touch, light and machinery, place and space, actual and virtual, sight and remembrance. Shifting our focus from the bookish catalogue of Rousseau to its modernist kin, the cinema, manipulation of the mouse traverses zones of light and threshold to prompt the apparition of an historical piece of cinematic equipment common to the domestic sphere of the home movie: slide lamps and projectors , 8 and 16mm projectors <http://www.desk.nl/~wwvf/95/5815.jpeg>. Only the user’s touch of the mouse activates the machinery of vision which then projects onto the threshold of the computer monitor varying stills and sequences of amateur and professional film footage. If cinema can be said to be the twentieth-century’s mnemonic machinery, then Hoberman’s CD-Rom foregrounds memory itself as the historical container of cinema–cinema here is not merely the material embodiment of movie houses, audiences, and production histories. It is also what touches the spectators at the core memory’s shell: their nostalgia for the home movie, their fond recollection of their first visit to the movie palace, their harboring of traumatic visions and memories created or mediated by cinema, and, foremost to Hoberman, their experience of “the parceling and reapportionment of time that dynamic media bring in their wake.”18
The inter-activity of the users’ solicitation of the CD is crucial here. Rather than being merely the passive recipients of cinematic phantasms from the primal scene, the users find their touch pivoting between the mechanism of everyday communication and the specters of cinematic fantasy to prompt on the monitor cryptic citations of the machineries of vision from the history of cinema. These citations range from indistinctly familiar cinema clips to amateur footage, from the home movie whose range extends from parental interaction to the infant’s discovery of the mirror-image to the baby’s playful game of Fort-Da, and from rites of childhood passage like the familial handshake in front of the camera to the disembodied tracking shots of sublime vacation landscapes.
The Sub-Divisions of the Electric Light positions the users, moreover, not merely in the interval of memory but in cinematic memory’s interval of time and light. Hoberman’s artistic sensibility to the nuances of time and light are crucial to the interactive play of his CD-Rom. Time is not so much experienced cinematically as a passing of time or recollection of memory, but is activated, as Deleuze might say, as the play or thought of temporality. “I want to make something,” writes Hoberman, “where time never stops completely–but not where you’re trapped in an automated clockwork–where the user can play with time, where time is something malleable–however not something where the user controls time (which would be impossible anyway).”19 Similar to the CD-Rom’s positioning of the users in the thought of time, the varying image tracks and light corridors situate the late twentieth-century subject within the phantasmatic horizon of the cinema not simply as the projection of light but also as the imprint and socio-cultural touch of light. Light is not, in this context, the transparent medium of metaphysics that links sight, visibility, and temporality. Nor is it a mechanism that merely “sheds light” on history and its politics. Rather light, particularly in its staged relation to time, functions more in the sense outlined by Cathryn Vasseleu, in Textures of Light: Vision and Touch in Irigaray, Levinas, and Merleau-Ponty, to open vision to the touch of light, “to the hinges or points of contact which constitute the interweaving of the material and ideal strands of the field of vision.”20 Vasseleu’s feminist linkage of the discourse of light to the play of touch sets up “a more mediate ontology,” a space-in-between that so uncannily characterizes Hoberman’s artistic project on the light of “becoming.”
Particularly striking about Hoberman’s sub-division of light is his demystification of both transcendence and the naturalization of light. Light here remains interrelated to its capture at the conjuncture of a fold in time and space. In one scene, for instance, the spectator triggers footage of underwater divers only to find that the light of projection situates them within the field of a three-dimensional room. While the users can manipulate the moving image to demystify the anamorphotic correction of the lens, they finds themselves aggressed by the sudden folding of walls, stairs, and screens in a way that reinserts the architectural as phantasmatic space rather than as flat projective place. Although the moving images capture virtual time as having passed, the interactivity of the CD-Rom stages the passing present of actual time through the interminable repetition of the image track. In this way, the CD-Rom conjoins actual passing time, as Deleuze characterizes its swing between the actual and the virtual, and time’s ephemerality: “time that is,” writes Deleuze, “that is smaller than the minimum of continuous thinkable time in one direction is also the longest time, longer than the maximum of continuous thinkable time in all directions.”21 It is within this temporal fold, moreover, that the viewers come to recognize their entrapment within the repetitive field of moving vision, enveloped as they are within the memory of familiarly indistinct images and the all too familiar soundtracks of filmic musak. They are beckoned to denaturalize the architectonics of cinema as a means of thinking space within the various folds of the sub-division of electric light.
The repositioning of the subject as thinking the movement of space also characterizes the performative conceit of Miroslaw Rogala’s inventive videographic CD-Rom, Lovers Leap22. Rogala creates a CD-Rom environment of real time and virtual reality that conjoins the speed of digital and electronic light. While watching the video movements of passers-by on the central bridge in downtown Chicago, the user responds to the frantic urban pace of the everyday by freezing the movement-image with the click of the mouse, as if snapping a touristic photograph. But in doing so, the cybertourist is almost simultaneously seized by the uncanny disorientation of what seems to be a familiar photographic scene by the subsequent vector of its movement, the rotation of its vision, and the pivoting of its sensorial planes. For with additional clicks of the mouse, the stilled photograph develops into a dizzying montage of altered angles and perceptions through which the high skyscrapers of the Loop are seen from the top down. The users thus find themselves caught in the space, the vector, and the speed of mutable point-of-view.23 Is it a coincidence that the uneven soundtrack records the voice of one passerby who recognizes the plight of a fellow traveler caught in the passage of the boundary: “You want to get out of here? Well, I just came in and I came from this way.” Caught in the flow of a seemingly unpredictable digital sequentiality, the users inhabit the threshold between two additional states or zones. One is the fractalized anamorphotic rotation of space and light that renders the flat studium of the stilled image into the curvilinear punctum of an image-event in action. The other zone is entered, almost as if by chance, when the users’ response to enigmatic hot spots permits them to cross the threshold into the virtual territory of the city’s alter-ego, Jamaica, where virtual light waves are the lay of the subliminal land. Here rather amateurish video footage records the artist’s own arrestation in the movement of becoming: “Traveling from Chicago to Jamaica,” he writes, “I visited a place called ‘Lovers Leap’ (a legendary location of tragic lovers–such places exist all over the world): there was a military radar scanning the sky. This physical surprise created a conceptual leap as well.”24
In Rogala’s case, the touristic surprise of sensorial entrapment positions the digital user within the destabilizing scene of fantasy as it traverses love and its subliminal leaps in perspective. “Our contemporary life-world,” writes Margaret Morse in her perceptive catalogue discussion of the installation on which the CD-Rom is based, “is an aggregate of a physical locality and virtual realms that are linked, but not united. (Manovich) In this case, ‘Chicago’ and ‘Jamaica’ correspond less to geographic localities than to states of mind. As Miroslaw Rogala explains, ‘movement through perspective is a mental construct; one that mirrors other jumps and disjunctive associations within the thought process.'”25 The Jamaican image of otherness, similar to the Chicago image of passage, catalyzes less the symbolic opposition of here and there, us and them, now and then, than the phantasmatic interrelation of performance and perspective whose partial uncontrollability and unaccountability happens, as Rogala points out, “in matters of love as well.”26 Fantasy and speculative repetition here morph the dialectics of identity and the political praxis of immediate reaction to situate the visitors in an indeterminate zone of sensory experience.
Somewhat resembling Alice in Wonderland’s curious fall through to the other dimension, the combined speed of electronic presentation and the flux of corporeal movement become enfolded in the time delay conjoining subliminal fantasy and speculative thought–enfolded, moreover, within the materialized space of the entry, the visitation, the threshold, the leap, the fantasy, the metamorphosis, the no exit.27 Rogala’s conceptual leap thus involved putting into action something like the enigmatic signifier that unsettles passive, touristic, and colonial observation. As Jean Laplanche describes such an enigmatic signifier, it continues to signify to the subject without its addressee knowing what it signifies.28 Through the traumatic nuance of the seduction of language, vision, and, subsequently, all that is particularly dramatic or performative, the trace of the enigma, Laplanche insists, is the carrier of fantasy’s affect. While the structure of resemblance and analogy continue to solicit the subject, its affect carries the uncanny incertitude and semiotic openness of the virtual.
The Soundings Of Shock: Norie Neumark
Nowhere is this solicitous openness of virtual affect better demonstrated than in Norie Neumark’s CD-Rom, Shock in the Ear (1998) which invites its user “to explore five moments of shock, to experience the strangely dislocated time/space that is shock.”29 An essay on the intensity and fragmentation of shock’s moment and aftermath, Neumark’s piece is organized around five moments of shock and its aftermath: Attack, Decay, Memory, Resonance, The Call (sound/image excerpts of these moments can be found at the Shock in the Ear website: <http://sysx.org/shock_in_the_ear/html/resonance2.html> and at the Contact Zones_ website: <http://contactzones.cit.cornell.edu/artists/neumark.html>). The users’ solicitous movement of the cursor across enigmatic surfaces of image and color triggers a symphony of natural and electronic sounds whose melody accompanies jarring narratives of shock: a woman’s first hours after a severe car accident, a political prisoner’s water torture, a World War II soldier’s shock from lightening while on the telephone, a mental patient’s shock treatment, and a young Italian girls cultural shock from an Australian hostel full of refugees from diverse backgrounds who speak unfamiliar languages. In a way that freezes the user in the moments specific to these narratives, the CD is programmed not to permit the user to click-off the story until all of its painful details are spoken. The tension between the free movement of the cursor across the visual field and the frozen time of narrative delivery exemplifies Neumark’s “shock aesthetics [in which] we can sense a dislocated space and expanded time during which, or after which, new sensations and perceptions can flood in.”30
Given Neumark’s reputation as a sound artist, it is not surprising that what marks the resonance of these narrative bits is less the graphic unction of their detail than the various textures or grains of the voice through which the sociological stuff of storytelling becomes entwined in the “more mediate ontology” that is voice. Adding to the wonder of this CD-Rom is how its presentation of the five moments of shock include bits of the same narratives being spoken in varying sequence by the different storytellers of the piece. Shock is thereby screened as apperceived by all users from inside fantasy’s continuously unfolding, jumbled, and retrospective narratives as much as something triggered from the outside by social and cultural interaction. While time stands still, fragments of narrative pass from ear to ear, between person and person, self and self’s other in what Neumark terms “a radiophonic type of space.”31 Enunciation and the vicissitudes of radiophonic interpellation are thus staged here as the foundational ground of shock, a quacking ground whose uncanny affability is likely to disarm and unsettle even its most callous users.
The aplomb of this CD-Rom’s interface with the affect of shock may be attributable to Neumark’s training in sound art and radio which permits her to experiment with the elasticity and plasticity of the expansive threshold of digital sound in contrast to the emphasis on cinematic and videomatic fields evident in the work of Boissier, Hoberman, and Rogala. By foregrounding the interface of sound and shock, both of which “take place in time,” Neumark means to invert the traditional artistic hierarchy of vision over sound in a way “that challenges the aesthetics and kinesthetics of CD-ROM interactives, through non-linear and poetic movement.”32 Throughout Shock in the Ear, the cursor’s movement triggers a symphony of natural and synthesized sounds whose disquieting tones work to envelope, if not distort, the voiced narrations. Equally striking about this piece, which could lend itself so easily to sensational visceral display, is the artist’s intelligent placement of the “the strangely dislocated time/space that is shock” within the appealing surround of a subtly fluid two-dimensional painterly ground. The CD-Rom’s ever-changing tableaux of paintings and designs by Maria Miranda <http://members.aol.com:/neumarkmiranda/homepage-2.html> playfully solicit the spectators with softly contrasting textures, loosely penciled figures, and abstract color fields that literally embody the digital sound tracks. One animated sequence accompanying the horrific description of ants entering the bloody wound of an accident victim’s leg displays not a mimetic image of the horrific thing but, instead, a sheet of colored paper being torn in half; in another, the description of “a violent sort of trembling” in the patient’s shock treated body is matched on the computer screen by rapidly changing color fields, from red/violet/blue; in yet a different link, the spiraling blackness described by a patient being administered gas is framed by illustrations of human figures entrapped in gilded bird cages. There is something about this project that consistently invites the users to inhabit the phantasmatic zone of shock rather than delight from a distance in the ugliness of its vision.
Neumark’s is an aesthetic environment far different, for instance, from “the condition of digital culture itself” described by Mark Seltzer as the essence of contemporary “wound culture”: “The convening of the public around scenes of violence–the rushing to the scene of the accident, the milling around the point of impact–has come to make up a wound culture: the public fascination with torn and opened bodies and torn and opened persons, a collective gather around shock, trauma, and the wound.”33 To the contrary, the CD’s lyrical and melodic tracks of beckoning whispers, synthesized chords, and natural tunes work wonderfully in situating the retroactive experience and thought of shock in a curiously soothing kinesthetic environment. The calmness and tranquillity lent to the visual field by the mischievousness of Neumark’s own ear contrasts sharply with the labored violent display of Seltzer’s “wound culture.” One hears electric static rather than thunder, shards of glass being swept rather than windshields exploding, and abstract electronic rhythms whose dissonance rings of uncertain familiarity. In striking contrast to the visceral attraction of a wound culture, the stunning verve of Neumark’s project on shock is how it envelopes the experience of shock less in the public fascination with the visceral image than in an unusual cushion of thought-provoking kinesthesia. “So it was a mapping of bodily shock space experience rather than early modernist shock aesthetics or recent Hollywood that I sought. I worked with sounds that traced that space. Not so much the crash of glass at impact, but the sweeping of shards that mark and mark out a fragmented space. Not the scream, but the sucking-in of breath, deep into the body, along the nerve lines, into the tissues.”34
The Interval of Becoming: Digital Incompossibility
Neumark’s artistic emphasis on the soft stillness and eerie tranquility of time’s suspension contributes to a digital environment in which the retroactive experience of shock can be thought along the divide of its divergent manifestations in culture and history. This is marked most clearly by the occasionally translucent cursor that reveals enigmatic but indecipherable fields of color and texture on the underside of the page. Or for a less subtle example of Neumark’s play with the enigmatic signifier of fantasy and its retroactive shock, consider how one page full of the same graffiti-penned question, “what?,” <http://sysx.org/shock_in_the_ear/html/resonance2.html> is designed so that the cursor can pick up and momentarily drag the “what?” with no apparent purpose or resolution. Here “what?” is displayed as a literal floating signifier that functions to signify to the users without its addressees possessing a clue about what it signifies.
Upon first visiting Shock in the Ear at around the same time I was planning this essay on the aesthetics of interactive digital art, I was struck by how profoundly Neumark’s piece provides a material ground or support for comprehending the digital horizon itself not simply as artistic material but as concept. Hers is not the immediate, hyperreal flaunting of ooze and wound, “a stalling on the matter, the materiality, of representation,” that Seltzer associates with the discourse network of 2000 as “the condition of digital culture itself.”35 Hers is more the phantasmatic condition of reception itself, similar to that condition of spectating suspended in the delay of time, that state noted by her accident victim as “like watching a silent movie.”36 The interactive promise of digital culture, in this sense, reveals not simply “the becoming-visible of the materialities of communication”37 but something more like the shadowy haze itself, something more akin to the three- to four-dimensional interval conjoining space and time, something close to Deleuze’s crystallization of time and image or Derrida’s horizon of “differance” that combines the becoming-space of time and the becoming-time of space.38 Digital aesthetics, in this context, is foremost an interval of becoming. It thus opens to the spectators an amoebic, fractal space of the temporal continuum of becoming, one enveloping past, present, and future, one that foregrounds the creative enigmas of the many dialectical tensions driving modernism’s ideological fantasy: being and non-being, resemblance and simulation, body and spirit, material and simulacrum.39
It may prove helpful to note that Deleuze understands such temporal continuum to effect the image of space only insofar as the interstice is inscribed in the seriality or difference of duration and time. The sometimes interminable duration of digital repetition, staged by Neumark as the continual recirculation of sound, can be said to figure an ontological crisis through which the user is confronted by the non-localizable exteriority of serialization. Deleuze always returns rather ambivalently to Leibniz’s notion of “incompossibility” to explain this complex point.40 In a footnote to Logique du sens, Deleuze provides a summary of the three serial elements of the world that inscribe the Leibnizian monad on the margins of incompossibility: one that determines the world by convergence, another that determines perfect individuals in this world, and finally another that determines incomplete or rather ambiguous elements common to many worlds and to many corresponding individuals.41 Deleuze is interested in how these elements fail to converge while still not negating or rendering each other impossible. Rather than either converging or remaining impossible for each other, rather than being either included or excluded, they stand in paradoxical relation to one another as divergent and coexistent: as “incompossible.” So stand the five states of shock coexisting incompossibly in Norie Neumark’s Shock in the Ear.
Incompossible Worlds of Identity: Reginald Woolery
In calling to mind the paradox with which I opened this essay, that of the attentiveness of digital/virtual artists to the temporal ghosting of procedures of resemblance and representation, I wish to work towards a conclusion by discussing an example of digital incompossibility of a sort perhaps more poignant to the American interface. Reginald Woolery’s 1997 award-winning CD-Rom, world wide web/million man march/world wide web, (www/mmm) <http://contactzones.cit.cornell.edu/artists/woolery.html> capitalizes on digital creativity to foreground the incompossible convergence of two major controversial events in recent American cultural history: the Washington D.C. Million Man March, sponsored by Louis Farrakahn, in 1995, and the 1994 group art exhibition, Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary American Art, curated by Thelma Golden at the Whitney Museum of Art in New York City. Woolery’s deeply reflective project interfaces printed news excerpts regarding the march, the internet, and African-American culture with photographic and audio interviews of visitors to the Black Male show and participants in the Million Man March. Thus juxtaposed with the incompossibility of these events is their rather coverage in the traditional media and the expansiveness of their discussion on the World Wide Web which began to exhibit its cultural promise alongside events surrounding the march. By combining in the CD-Rom contrasting on-site interviews and internet news bits from two divergently controversial moments in recent American cultural history, Woolery successfully conjoins divergent stories that derive from personal and public experience, from history and from fiction, with a wide range of competing views and sounds of African-American culture–conflicting narratives, images, and sound tracks that come from within the community as well as from without. The same digital palette links, for example, the contrasting audio interviews of black celebrating their gathering in Washington with the disenchanted views of patrons who have just left the Whitney disturbed by the prominent display of black male flesh.
The opening page of www/mmm presents the user with a small graphic video insert embedded in a page of URLs whose fast speed soundtrack frames the CD-Rom in the suspicion of the digital future itself. Equating the fascination with the internet with a version of civil disengagement, the high pitched, rapid fire voice (a voice of urgency, of media hysteria?) equates the internet with ‘yet another version of the opiate of the masses” in that it provides users with the illusory impression that they actually are creating community. Users enter the interface of www/mmm armed with the warning that the downside of the information highway is its failure to provide its virtual riders with concrete means for sustainability, accountability, and conflict management. In an interior link in the CD-Rom, “News,” users are presented with internet news bits attesting to the pioneering rhetoric of the “new frontier” whose promises may have done little more, one story suggests, than enact the “Haves and Have-Nots Revisited.” At almost every turn in www/mmm, the celebratory joy of digital aesthetics is tempered by the cautious reminder that the interface is not yet all-inclusive.
But I do not mean to give the impression that www/mmm is primarily a visual or video phantasmagoria of life on (or off) the net. For the soul of this piece is its sound. Comprising the CD-Rom’s aesthetic fabric is a multimedia weave of two-dimensional graphic collage always surrounded by the beat and tempo of changing African-American music tracks, from jazz to funk, that situate the viewer in the type of radiophonic type of space so characteristic of Norie Neumark. When music is not in the air, then the melodious difference of dialect picks up the beat. What distinguishes Woolery’s radiophonics from those of Neumark, however, is the cutting realism of their soundbytes that here burn the memories of the traumatic past into the searing interface of the everyday African-American cultural environment.
Organized around four central tropes–spirit, identity, pleasure, and desire–Woolery’s CD-Rom foregrounds the incompossible worlds of identity now challenging the uniform clarity of representational purpose. The playful scene of Uncle Reggie “Sitting on Sunday with Sasha and Sava” which opens the “pleasure’ site is contrasted in the same site by an equally celebratory, if not deeply melancholic, collage of stills from Marlon Riggs’ Tongues Untied and a closing link to verse so important to Riggs by the gay British poet, Essex Hemphill. The “spirit” link, moreover, confronts the viewer with a mischievous video montage of footage of two American idols of the media: Louis Farrakahn and Farah Fawcett, or Farah-Kahn. And the scene of “desire” presents the viewers with graphic outtakes of responses to the questionnaires regarding desire returned to Woolery by the audiences of his public presentations. While a click on the keyword “consume” links to the response “I lost my virginity, I gained insight” the keyword “passion” reveals the painful result of years of such insight: “when my husband left me I was so physically and emotionally distraught that I wanted to leave my body in its pain and go somewhere, anywhere.” The honesty of the interface and the openness of its conflicting messages present the users of www/mmm with an aesthetic environment in which to ponder the paradoxes of the mental and emotional side of physical life in America.
But rather than settle for the simple solution of positioning, say, the Black Male on the clear-cut threshold of Us and Them, Woolery presents a much more complicated scenario in which desire and identification envelope the atmosphere of representation in something of a shadowy haze which one calls the sensible world or history. It is precisely the haze of history that provokes the question of desire’s object: desire for and identification with whom? The unclear response to this question is foregrounded, among other things, by the CD’s emphatic display of the rift caused by the American conflation of fantasy and desire of and for the black male body, a conflation that becomes especially complicated by the focus on the most controversial pieces of the Black Male exhibit, those that interrogate and celebrate black homosexual desire.42 Given his CD-Rom’s forthright prompting of the unresolved debate over the show’s pictorialization of the black male body, from its inclusion of the always controversial Black Book photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe to its display of photographs by Lyle Ashton Harris in drag, my sense is that Woolery’s CD-Rom comprises a collective dialogue on the understanding of an art of engagement as something other than a clear-cut visual praxis of identity, division, and the alienation of political struggle. Rather it prompts something more of a fluid aesthetic reflection on the vicissitudes of repetition, difference, and the flux of ideological fantasy. As one keyword reveals in the “pleasure” site, the “Other” vision here is urgent yet unrestricted: “I had a vision of my self in the bow of a white boat, speeding to the rescue of who or what I had no idea.”
Final Exit: Racing Along The Digital Highway
Woolery’s work foregrounds the controversial role of narratives and theories of desire in articulating identities of race, gender, and sexuality, not to mention the challenge of digital incompossibility to prior modernist assumptions about art, aesthetics, and identity. I wish to conclude this far too sweeping discussion of digital aesthetics by reflecting on the significance of an anecdote lingering in my memory which I am fairly confident to have been prompted by Woolery’s presentation of www/mmm to The Flaherty Film Seminar at Ithaca College in 1997. This is a memorable remark, which could easily be encased in the expansive memory file of www/mmm, made by a black male who recalled proudly his memory of speeding down the New Jersey Turnpike in a packed automobile on his way to the march in Washington, D. C.. The man’s remarks focused on the paradoxical spectacle of this vehicle full of black men which may have aroused suspicion from white highway patrolmen surveilling it from the outside just as it generated powerful black pride from within (there is documented evidence that the New Jersey troopers have developed a habit of stopping cars for random drug checks when they are drive by black men). As echoing throughout the envelope of Reginald Woolery’s artistic CD-Rom, this is the kind of www/mmm spectacle that is particularly poignant in the context of postWWII art. For these men were cruising the same non-electronic highway out of which Michael Fried has gotten so much mileage via his now canonical essay, “Art and Objecthood.”
You may recall the pivotal moment in this essay when Fried foregrounds remarks by the sculptor, Tony Smith, about cruising the New Jersey Turnpike while it was under construction in the early fifties. To Smith, as Fried helps us to understand, the turnpike existed “as something enormous, abandoned, derelict, existing for Smith alone and for those in the car with him.”43 The theatrical character of what Fried understood as Smith’s literalist art without the object itself resulted, as Fried acutely puts it, in the sheer persistence of the experience that directed itself at Smith from outside the car and that simultaneously made him a subject and established the experience as objecthood. (The unusual importance of this anecdote to Fried’s vision of aesthetics was made evident during his Q & A at the 1998 session of the School of Criticism and Theory when Fried placed the entire weight of his notion of theatrical beholding on this same example which was crucial to him thirty years earlier.)
Curiously, the traveling subject in participatory dialogue with Woolery remarks on a similar experience, but one with a significant difference with which I end. For him, the thrill was the persistence of the movement towards something enormous but not abandoned or derelict, the Million Man March, whose uncertain utopic journey seems not to have been regarded by him and the others in the car, as it was for Smith, as “wholly accessible to everyone, not just in principle but in fact.”44 In contrast, this man’s cinematic motion down the Turnpike marked both the desire for and the incompossibility of what Woolery calls the sustainable experience of community. Most notably, that trip on the New Jersey turnpike, much like the delirium of the Black Male show for many of its viewers and the speedy excess of new digital art for so many others, reopened the enigmatic question of Black Male subjectivity as one in need of breaking the shackles of its American objectification to reposition itself on the conjoined horizons of spirit, identity, pleasure, and desire. Woolery’s electronic assemblage of these racialized horizons signifies to its many users, but does not necessarily signify what–at least in a manner that can be assumed to be wholly accessible and comforting to everyone. Perhaps this is what it means to cruise through the aesthetic haze of digital incompossibility. “I had a vision of my self in the bow of a [digital] boat, speeding to the rescue of who or what I had no idea.”45
1. Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, trans. Paul Patton (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), 208.
2. Pierre Levy, Cyberculture: Rapport au Conseil de l’Europe dans le cadre du projet “Nouvelles technologies: cooperation culturelle et communication (Paris: Editions Odile Jacob, 1997), 179.
4. Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, 208.
5. Francesc Torres, “The Accident Placed in its Context,” Art & Design, Profile 31: “World Wide Video” (1993), 52.
6. In Cinema 2: l’image-temps (Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1985), 41, Deleuze reminds his readers that cinematic analogy is not so much a product of resemblance as it is the movement between “l’enonce par analogie, et la structure ‘digitale’ ou digitalisee de l’enonce.” Raymond Bellour develops a similar point in his extraordinary essay on the electronic image, “The Double Helix,” in Timothy Druckrey, ed., Electronic Culture: Technology and Visual Representation (New York: Aperture, 1996), 173-99.
7. Maurice Merleau Ponty, Le Visible et l’invisible (Paris: Gallimard, 1964), 116.
8. Deleuze, The Fold: Leibniz and the Baroque, trans. Tom Conley (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), 110.
9. These remarks on Boissier are a slightly revised version of my catalogue entry on Flora Petrinsularis for Hardware, Software, Artware: Confluence of Art and Technology–Art Practice at the ZKM Institute for Visual Media , 1992-1997, ed. Margaret Morse (Karlsruhe: ZKM, 1997), 62-67.
10. The CD-Rom version of Flora Pentrinsularis is available in Artintact 1 (Ostfildern: Cantz Verlag/ Karlsruhe: ZKM, 1994).
11. Boissier again picks up this theme of the paradox of interactivity in his internet project on Rousseau, Le billet circulaire (1997) (http://www.labarbt.univ-paris8.fr/vo/JJRbillet.html): “Rather than soliciting responses, which is what the internet normally encourages,” explains Boissier, ” ‘Le billet circulaire’ engages the internet as an aleatory space of aural potentialities, as an echo chamber for the frenzy both of guilt and innocent communication.”
12. Jean-Louis Boissier, “Two Ways of Making Book: Working notes on Flora petrinsularis,” Artintact 1, 73.
13. Ibid., 71.
14. Ibid., 75.
15. In his most recent hypermedia installation, Second Promenade (http://www.kah-bonn.de/1/28/0e.htm), Boissier elaborates on the importance of the digital recreation of Rousseau’s visions so that the precision of the angles provides the mechanism through which digital interactivity here mirrors the points of view in Rousseau’s Promenade.
16. Ibid., 73
17. Perry Hoberman, The Sub-Division of the Electric Light in Artintact 3
(Ostfildern: Cantz Verlag/ Karlsruhe: ZKM, 1996).
18. Peter Lunenfeld, “Postmodern Ruins, Restive Machines,” Artintact 3 (Ostfildern: Cantz Verlag/ Karlsruhe: ZKM, 1996), 74.
19. Cited by Lunenfeld, ibid.
20. Cathryn Vasseleu, Textures of Light: Vision and Touch in Irigaray, Levinas, and Merleau-Ponty (London: Routledge, 1998), 12.
21. Deleuze, “The Actual and the Virtual,” trans. Charles T. Wolfe, Any, 19 (1997), 7.
22. Miroslaw Rogala, Lovers Leap in Artintact 2 (Ostfildern: Cantz Verlag/ Karlsruhe: ZKM, 1995).
23. See Timothy Druckrey, “Lovers Leap–Taking the Plunge: Points of Entry…Points of Departure,” Artintact 2, 75.
24. Cited by Druckrey, 73.
25. Margaret Morse in “Miroslaw Rogala: Lovers Leap,” Hardware, Software, Artware: Confluence of Art and Technology–Art Practice at the ZKM Institute for Visual Media , 1992-1997, ed. Margaret Morse (Karlsruhe: ZKM, 1997). Lovers Leap was initially designed as an interactive installation (available on the web at http://www.art.cfa.cmu.edu/www-rogala/LL3D/LOVERSLEAP.HTML). While moving through the exhibition space, the spectator would activate sensors that would catalyze the doubled visions of Chicago and Jamaica. It is in the context of spectator’s initial unknowing interpellation of the visual spectacle that Rogala distinguishes interactivity from control: “When the viewer enters the place, one becomes aware that one’s movements or actions are changing the view but won’t realize how. This means that the viewer is not really in control, but simply aware of his or her complicity….As the viewer’s awareness of the control mechanism grows, so does the viewer’s power,” quoted by Morse in “Miroslaw Rogala: Lovers Leap.”
26. Cited by Druckrey, 74.
27. My understanding of the spatial simulations of the threshold are indebted to Gilles Deleuze’s extensive reflections on Alice in Wonderland in Logique du sens (Paris: Minuit, 1969). I develop the electronic implications of the “threshold” in “The Shadowy Haze of the Threshold,” Threshold, ed., Louise Dompierre (Toronto: The Power Plant–Contemporary Art Gallery, 1998), 61-67.
28. Jean Laplanche, New Foundations for Psychoanalysis, trans. David Macey (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1989), 45.
29. Norie Neumark, jacket copy, Shock in the Ear (Sydney, 1998).
30. Neumark, “A Shock in the Ear: Re-Sounding the Body, Mapping the Space of Shock Aesthetics,” Essays in Sound 4 (1999), 42.
32. Neumark, jacket copy, Shock in the Ear.
33. Mark Seltzer, “Wound Culture: Trauma in the Pathological Public Sphere,” October 80 (Spring 1997), 3.
34. Neumark, “A Shock in the Ear: Re-Sounding the Body, Mapping the Space of Shock Aesthetics,” 46.
35. Seltzer, 18
36. I elaborate on the phantasmatic condition of reception, as something “like a film,” in the Introduction, “Ideological Fantasy in Reverse Projection,” of Like a Film: Ideological Fantasy on Screen, Camera, and Canvas (London and New York: Routledge, 1993), 1-21.
37. Seltzer, 18
38. Jacques Derrida, “La differance,” Marges de la philosophie (Paris: Minuit, 1972) and Gilles Deleuze, “Les Cristaux du temps,” Cinema 2: l’image-temps (Paris: Minuit, 1985).
39. I analyze various artistic manifestations of such “ideological fantasy” in Like a Film: Ideological Fantasy on Screen, Camera, and Canvas (London: Routledge, 1993).
40. Conley, “Translator’s Foreword: A Plea for Leibniz,” in Deleuze, The Fold, ibid., pp. ix-xx, provides a helpful account of Deleuze’s debt to Leibniz. In “Autonomasia: Leibniz and the Baroque,” MLN 105, 3 (April 1990), pp. 432-452, Peter Fenves provides an excellent overview of Leibniz.
41. Deleuze, Logique du sens, Paris, 1977, pp. 138-139.
42. These images are discussed in the catalogue by Thelma Golden, Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary American Art (New York: Whitney Museum of Art, 1994).
43. Michael Fried, “Art and Objecthood,” in Minimal Art: A Critical Anthology, ed. Gregory Battcock (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1968), 131. Anne-Marie Duguet contrasts Fried’s critique of theatricality in this essay with her sense of the electronic promise of video, in “Dispositifs,” Video, Communications 48, 1988.
44. Ibid., 131-34.
45. An earlier and briefer draft of this essay, “Digital Incompossibility: The Aesthetics of Interactivity,” was distributed on disk in the form of an electronic catalogue to participants of “La Sensibilitat multimedia: il journades sobre ar I multimedia,” October 1998, Fundacio “la Caixa,” Barcelona. I am particurly indebted to Reginald Woolery, Norie Neumark, Jean-Louis Boissier, and Miroslaw Rogala for their discussions about their work and their generous sharing of critical materials important to this expanded discussion of their work.