Kinograffiti: intro

Posted by Rhizome | Sun May 25th 1997 1 a.m.


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In my work I am concerned with a number of issues arising around two
ideals: the analog and the digital. Though these modes today are
considered technically and somehow sensorially different, I doubt the
sustainability of their distinction. My doubt arises from the fact that
technics and senses are evaluated and made operational socially, within
a social system of discourse. All discourses are systems of metaphors,
and other rhetorical figures, which through centuries of use and abuse,
have accrued relations to many different disciplines and arguments. We
cannot always be aware of all the possible connotations a term may have.
Subsequently, one use to which we may put a term may be not only
semantically different from another valid use for it, but also
contradictory. Such friction within a term (as opposed perhaps to that
between terms) is due to a materiality which we feel as the history of
its use. Such a history may be considered, metaphorically, a set of
social inscriptions that we must read (but not necessarily resolve) in
order to use a term.

When considering a term such as analog, we could think about it in terms
of an actual object. I take a traditional time piece, a clock, as an
example. With "face" and "hands," a clock is already entrenched in
analogy. We also speak of the way in which such devices "keep" time as
being "analog." This can be further underlined when placed in contrast
to the newer digital clocks. But rather than discuss distinctions
between digital and analog artifacts, let's continue with analog clocks.
It is true enough that they are made from moving parts, such as gears,
but to what extent can such components be considered purely analog?
Gears have a discrete number of teeth which allow them to function only
seemingly in analog fashion, albeit, continuously. The device relies on
digital representation, each tooth being discrete and symbolic. Insofar
as analog modes of representation (such as analogy) are deployed to
effect continuities, we see with the example of the clock that such
continuities are limited. They are limited not really from a perceptual
perspective, but by a social, rhetorical context. By metaphorically
"looking" differently at the clock, we hint at a different, and, in
fact, digital interpretation of the analog device.

Within my recent work, considered primarily digital, I have tried to put
such rhetorical operations in play.



Today's, not tomorrow's, technology announces the possibility of travel,
friendship, saved labor, transcultural literacy, reality, and other
goals valued in our industrial societies. Though seemingly repetitious
of a twentieth century modernist hyperbole, even skeptics must regard
these pronouncements with a degree of seriousness. What would
significantly differentiate today's fervor over technology from what we
are in the habit of associating with an earlier modernism does seem
somewhat unclear. It may be that today, perhaps after modernism, and
perhaps after postmodernism, we are in possession of some greater
critical awareness. But I don't think that such self-blindness could be
further from the case. What encourages even the greatest doubters among
us to indulge their imaginations with the possibilities of today's
technology? What indeed is it we talk about when talk about today's


Artists have been working along these lines for decades. In the
seventies cybernetic art began to be made, mostly in Europe and in the
United States. Shortly before that, video became an important site for
artistic experimentation. Four years ago when I was first introduced to
the World-Wide-Web, it was an artist friend who encouraged me to explore
it. Before I had made my first attempts at writing with HTML, the
skeletal script of the web, I found some early attempts at distributing
visual and poetic material through the limited but suggestive medium of
the web. Video, robotics, CD-ROM's, the Internet, these technologies --
which we sense have restructured our experience of the everyday, and
continue to do so, account for why it is difficult to say exactly how
these technologies are changing us -- comprise a set of media within
which artists are still working.

My own interests in relation to these issues circulate around questions
about how the specificity of the digital medium structures what we mean
to say with it. This question for me is preceded by one concerning what
the specificity of the digital medium might be. Is there anything
specific about this medium? The question has been asked by others:
whether the digital realm is a medium or a tool? And indeed, what
difference would this difference make?

In inquiring about the specificity of the medium, I am not in search of
an essence. The question of specificity in the critical tradition has
often led toward establishing such ends. Thus at one time we might have
argued here over the characteristics specific to painting versus those
belonging to literary objects. Cultural and mental hierarchies were
constructed upon the universally valid essence believed to exist at the
heart of each cultural form of representation. Rather, what I am
interested in is inquiring into the forms of understanding which allow
us to accept digital representation as different from other modes of
representation. I tend to use "digital representation" and "new media"
synonymously. At times, I "collapse" together various digital practices
as programming, digital image editing, and web surfing. I do this in
order to emphasize the similarity and identity of the tools common to
much of human-computer interaction today.

The work I have been doing at the Media Lab in the last year has been a
reflection on these issues. This work, for me, grew out of my research
as an art history doctoral student. I have titled my recent work
"Kinograffiti" to reflect a relation to both a history of moving images
and a desire to identify with a specific practice of cultural writing.
Graffiti interests me in that beyond being a form of writing, it is a
very public kind of writing. Its generous forms that suggest the
gestures of bodies in motion against architectural forms differ from,
say, diary entries, which could also be shown to operate publicly, but
along different tropological structures from those constituting street
graffiti. Graffiti is more cryptographic. It is also more emblematic.
Its forms are "tags," crossing the boundary from alphabetic territory
into a pictographic one. Graffiti seems paradoxical in the way that it
is both a gestural form, connoting an autograph, while it simultaneously
depends on reproduction for its life, also like an autograph or
signature. Individual tags exist in an economy of reproduction; they
bear a great deal of resemblance to other tags. Gestures composing one
tag may resemble those constituting a different tag. This gestural
economy accounts for a great deal of the recognizability of graffiti as
a form.

There is something of the structure of digital forms which resembles for
me the aspects of graffiti I've just described. That some aspect of this
resemblance is seen by others is reflected in that on the Internet there
are a number of websites which use the metaphor of graffiti as a way to
allow visitors to leave traces, markings, or pictographs. Of course,
unlike street graffiti, such web architectures are designed to elicit
and receive their taggings. Special software authorizes this graffiti.
In this way, these websites encourage the graffiti artist's desire to
deposit a mark, but without encouraging an aspect equally important to
the success of graffiti as well as the web: the ability to copy and
learn from the resource of forms that already circulate over that
network. This aspect of digital practice is in fact central not only to
the extension and popularization of the web, but an important part of
all interaction we have with digital media. Digital media not only lends
itself to being copied, but itself operates in terms of reproductive
operations. On the web, novices learn to make their own websites by
copying the scripts making up other sites. But experienced programmers
at times do no different when writing code. And computers are designed
to copy information from one area of memory to another. I will return
later to this issue of copying.

If graffiti's gestural forms connote animation of the human body as well
as the fragmented bodies of our cities, cinema's ability to animate is
more descriptive than connotative. Computers, again through their
replicative functionality, already suggest a certain degree of animation
of information as it moves and streams through pathways connecting
memory and processors. But this in itself does not suggest the movement
effected by cinematic representation. However, where the sense of
movement we associate with computers intersects the history of cinema
and moving images in general, becoming relevant to Kinograffiti, is the
moment within the short history of computers when viewing screens become
an integral part of how we work with these devices. It is not that the
screen, this object that references not only film, but also the psyche,
is absolutely necessary to the functioning of a computer. In fact, it
has been pointed out that the work performed by computers is not
particularly attuned to visual perception. However, it is precisely this
device's supplementary status which renders it so important to an
investigation of our relationship to digital media. The Cathode Ray Tube
(CRT) gave humanity to the monstrosity of room-sized computing machinery
by acting as a sort of face in scale with our own. Certainly the
keyboard allowed us to communicate to these devices. Printers even
allowed computers to write to us on long ribbons of paper. Like paper,
CRT's represented text on a flat, legible surface. Unlike paper, the
glowing, ephemeral surfaces of CRT's could be used to display different
information over time, depending on the state of the computer. A CRT was
like a window into the state of a computer at a particular moment in
time. In this way, CTR's were unlike film, which projected the same
fixed play of forms every showing. CRT's were perhaps, as they continue
to be, more akin to television. Like television, the computer display
appears to bring closer a vision of something our own bodies cannot
reach. Nonetheless, the possibility for temporal fiction shared between
those early computers equipped with CRT's and films was soon exploited
in the form of video games. Early video games animated simple graphics
to show dynamic game boards where triangle spaceships traveled black
space shooting point-sized projectiles at each other. Expressing more
than the computer's origin in a culture of war, these early video games
reveal something of the relationship of programmer to machine. At work
between them is a repetitive structure of design and play (of a play
between design and play) whereby neither the player nor the game is
understood as finished or completed. A player may master a game, become
bored with, or break a game, but it will always be possible to redesign
the game. In this way, a certain temporality is put in play. This
temporality corresponds to a sense of infinity, of possibility without
bounds. It also resonates with a cultural sense of self understood as
collection of drives and desires in play, interacting dynamically with
each other.

If today we find this sense of digital media in any way familiar, not to
mention appealing, it is perhaps because we have come to regard its
artifacts as ephemeral and consistent with a sense of passing time, a
momentariness to which we find difficulty holding on. To put this into
perspective, it is important to place this sense of digital media in
relation to other media -- those we now tend to call "analog".

It is generally acknowledged that digital media differ from the analog
variety. Nonetheless, both are created for the purpose of storing
information or data. Data, in any case, requires a structure or
substrate in which it can be stored at any one time. At any one moment
it is a resource in reserve for a later time. Analog storage is usually
characterized as being formed by means of an impression left by a
marking tool upon a receiving surface. In this category we have such
familiar forms as hieroglyphs, easel paintings, LP records, video tape,
and so forth. Digital storage, on the other hand, is characterized by
there being a substrate that is a logical matrix -- rather than a
physical surface subject to direct impression and manipulation. The
logical matrix is an architecture of cells or slots, each with its
unique address, within which a number, a symbol, rather than an
impression is stored. In the case of analog storage we might say that
the impression comprising the stored information resembles the marking
tool. That is, there is what is called an "indexical" relation, one of
spatio-temporal contiguity, between the tool with which one writes and
the mark or impression made. In the case of the digital device, the
symbolic encoding of the information effectively bears no visible or
tactile similarity to the encoding tool. In addition, the fact that each
slot of a digital matrix is uniquely addressable makes possible a type
of direct access to its symbolic content, known as "random access".
Analog information, being mapped onto a physical surface with variable
impressions, rather than a uniform matrix whose slots are filled with
symbols from a known domain, tends to reinforce a linear mode of access.
We tend more to run our eyes and hands, reading (metaphorically and
literally), over a surface containing analog information.

Much has already been said about this. I will only touch on one issue
which is important to my work. An operation that digital storage and
computation make possible is a sort of universal translation of
information from one physical manifestation into others seemingly quite
different ones. Thus, my voice, once recorded digitally, may be
converted into light on a display, or, through a motor, the motion of a
robot, or any number of other sensible phenomena. Not unlike the
symbolic system known as money, digital representation enables an
economy. Money enables exchange of objects independently of their size
or material. The structure of money, its tangible exchangeability, makes
it seem as if goods are more similar materially, and, though distant,
attainable, than they may actually be. So with digital computation, the
specificity of one form of experience, voice, for example, is dissolved
as one experience is translated into another, voice into picture. This
operation seems to correspond with a sense that things and ideas never
stand alone, but somehow relate to each other, and that there may even
be ways of connecting seemingly different or opposite concepts (such as
political positions).

Despite this alchemy, I don't think that this operation by itself
disturbs our senses of identity in contemporary culture. This is because
what I have been describing has been a conservative operation. In other
words, in stating that a form is translatable, through digital
computation, into other forms, I have taken for granted that our
original voice recording will have remained preserved. Untouched. Those
of you familiar with today's multimedia tools such as Adobe's Photoshop
are also familiar with the "Undo" facility. Identity is preserved by way
of duplication. One changes a "working copy" of an image rather than the
saved version.

On the other hand, I do think that we experience apprehension when
operations are found to involve a destructive capacity. In terms of the
digital matrix, it is possible to change the symbolic information
contained in one of its slots with another symbol without retaining any
history of such an exchange. In terms of something we do everyday, like
communicate through E-mail, it is possible to erase or overwrite one's
correspondence witho
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