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The Death of Computer Art

From: Lev Manovich
Subject: The Death of Computer Art
Format: ASCII
Average Reading Time: 4 min. 29 sec.
Signal to Noise Ratio: unknown
Rating: adult
Genre: provocation

After reading with great interest recent discussions about this year's
ISEA and Ars Electronica, I wanted to offer the following thoughts
(partly, as a way to compensate myself for not being able to go to
either event this year).

Lots of people talk about the coming convergence of computers,
communication and television. This convergence will probably happen. In
fact, judging from the new models of personal computers which are
clearly being positioned as consumer electronic devices (incorporating
answering machine and TV cards in them), it is indeed well underway.

Those of us who work with digital art often debate another convergence
– the convergence between the art world and the computer art world. I
recently came to the conclusion that this particular convergence will
NOT happen. Below are the reasons why.

(In the following, I will refer to art world – galleries, major
museums, prestigious art journals – as Duchamp-land, in analogy with
Disneyland. I will also refer to the world of computer arts, as
exemplified by ISEA, Ars Electronica, SIGGRAPH art shows, etc. as
Turing-land).

The typical object which is admitted in Duchamp-land (i.e., counted as
contemporary art) meets the following characteristics:

1) Oriented towards the "content." […]

2) "Complicated." […]

3) Ironic, self-referential, and often literally destructive attitude
towards its material, i.e., its technology, be it canvas, glass, motors,
electronics, etc. […]

Let us now look at Turing-land. As we will see, Turing-land is
characterized by directly opposing characteristics:

1) Orientation towards new, state-of-the-art computer technology, rather
than "content." […]

2) "Simple" and usually lacking irony. See below.

3) Most important, objects in Turing-land take technology which they use
always seriously.

In that, computer art functions exactly like the computer industry. How
often do you see computer artists seriously confronting and
foregrounding the basic nature of computer technology – that computers
always crash; that computer programs run out of memory; that half of the
links on the WWW lead nowhere; that a typical VR user spends her or his
time being literally lost rather than being engaged in "meaningful"
interaction with a virtual world; etc. In short, our civilization is
rushing to ground itself in a technology which can only be described as
highly unreliable, transient, and incomplete. When computers don't work
at a computer art show, the artists and the audience always treat this
fact with horror, although they are present at an industry demo – as
opposed to taking this to be a wonderful Dada-like accident.

[…]

Let us return to the battle between Duchamp-land and Turing-land. Shall
I conclude from my analysis that now, as Duchamp-land has finally
discovered computers and begun to use them with its usual irony and
sophistication, gatherings such as ISEA and Ars Electronica should
simply be abolished? Probably not. These gatherings do play an important
function of being a buffer zone, an interface where the world of culture
at large and the world of computer culture meet each other. Sometimes
we even see artists genuinely pushing the boundaries of new media
aesthetics, i.e. going beyond what is already accomplished by flight
simulators, new computer games with their AI engines, MIT Media Lab
projects, etc. In short, on occasion artists are able to compete with
computer researchers, rather than simply creating new demos for
commercial software, thus functioning as "memes" for computer industry.

What we should not expect from Turing-land is art which will be accepted
in Duchamp-land. Duchamp-land wants art, not research into new aesthetic
possibilities of new media. The convergence will not happen.

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