ArtWare I

By Dr. Stefan Höltgen

Art history and science provide various methods of researching historical artworks: They approach ‘them from the outside’ with a historical analysis of motives and discourses to describe them beyond their purely visual aspects. For example, the political, aesthetic or other topics that are hidden behind specific elements of illustration. Furthermore, the science of art also approaches the materiality of art ‘from within’: What fabrics and colours were utilized? Can the process of creation be reconstructed? Can any indications of special production techniques be found? For this purpose non-hermeneutic Methods and Technologies are being used, comparable to their utilization in the field of forensics, archaeometry, chemistry or material sciences.

In addition to that, the recent archaeological research (very early cultures) has established a third method, which is broadly known as experimental archaeology. It comprises the attempt to determine the process of creation and its conditions of the individual artwork, through the recreation of the artwork with presumed methods and materials. (Cf. Coles 1979) This access to historical and theoretical knowledge was recently formulated as “carpentry” (Bogost 2012):

“Making things is hard. Whether it’s a cabinet, a software program, or a motorcycle, simply getting something to work at the most basic level is nearly impossible. […] Carpentry might offer a more rigorous kind of philosophical creativity, precisely because it rejects the correlationist agenda by definition, refusing to address only the human reader’s ability to pass eyeballs over words and intellect over notions they contain. Sure, written matter is subject to the material constraints of the page, the printing press, the publishing company, and related matters, but those factors exert minimal force on the content of a written philosophy. While a few exceptions exist […], philosophical works generally do not perpetrate their philosophical positions through their form as books. The carpenter, by contrast, must contend with the material resistance of his or her chosen form, making the object itself become the philosophy.” (Bogost 2012:92f.)

Based on this methodical triad of historical analysis of art, I have held a seminar about the ‘re-enactment’ of historical cybernetic art during the winter term 2018/2019 at the University of Greenwich. This period of art can be distinguished from others by the general circumstance that the participation of computers – for the first time in history – was of great significance in the process of their creation. Apart from the new materialistic constitution, the simultaneous occurrence of the ‘computer art’ and the development of a new theory: Cybernetics accompanied by the information theory and information aesthetics. Since the early 1960s artists have tried to not only utilize computers and their peripheries (monitors, plotters and speakers) as art tools but also to redefine the arising art, as well as the process of production and perception with the help of cybernetics:

“The remarkable step taken here is the step from aesthetics as a rigorously rational analytic aesthetics to a generative method. […] The interpretation that we traditionally expect from an aesthetics gets changed into construction. The effort to rigorously define measures in order to evaluate certain characteristics of the work (of art), in the case of the model of Information Aesthetics is shifted to the opposite effort of algorithmically generating such works. Scientific and engineering methods break into the realm of the humanities – a provocation!” (Nake 2012:70)

The seminar started with the acquisition of knowledge about the theoretical fields of cybernetics and its mathematical method (information theory). How can entropy (in Shannon’s definition) be used for ‘artificial communication’? What proportion of the informativity of a message is being provided by statistics? But also: How are redundancy and complexity related to one another, when they comprise the role of the message, which is being interchanged between artist and recipient? We gathered the mathematical definitions by Max Bense (1971), George David Birkhoff (1932), Helmar Frank (1968) and Herbert W. Franke (1977) and discussed the aforementioned questions based on their contributions.

The media archaeological difficulty was to devote the attention to the technical and formal a priori of the priorly discussed historical theories: The setup and functioning of the graphics hardware (especially displays, printers and the architecture of graphical hardware) as well as the semi-technical (Kittler 2001) examination of computer graphics and algorithms established the basis:

“Computer images are the output of computer graphics. Computer graphics are software programs that, when run on the appropriate hardware, provide something to see and not just to read. […] Simplified accordingly, a computer image is a two-dimensional additive mixture of three base colors shown in the frame, or parergon, of the monitor housing. Sometimes the computer image as such is less apparent, as in the graphic interface of the newfangled operating systems, sometimes rather more, as in ‘images’ in the literal sense of the word.” (Kittler 2001:31)

Two excursions were arranged to exemplify this perspective ‘live’ on hard- and software:
The exhibition about mathematics and information technology in the Science Museum were examined from a media archaeological point of view: To demonstrate that media technology principally resists human categorization when not projected onto the perspective of application (or the perspective of their effect, aesthetic or economy), both exhibitions were analyzed in regard to the media technological criteria of differentiation ‘analogous/digital’, ‘information/material/energy’ and ‘ operativity/materiality’. The question, which dispositive and discursive factors influenced the functional structure and design of the exhibition and the selected exhibits were also objects of the examination as well as as well as the methods used by museum didactics to compensate the media state of dysfunctional media technology.

After the discourse about real historical hardware, the museumization of software could be exemplified in the special exhibition ‘Games’ in the Victoria and Albert Museum. The overemphasis of a semi-materialistic status of software (as in paratexts, production notes, accompanying text, videos, interviews, etc.) compared to their necessary operativity was clearly recognizable in this exhibition with a definite focus on the design of computer games. The prevailing criteria for the differentiation of computer games – their interactivity – was only evident for a few exhibits and those rather emphasized the artistic ambitions of their developers than the actual act of gaming.

Frieder Nake’s theory of the “second image” (2008) emphasizes the duality of computer images: the surface and the subface. This theory can generally be transferred onto technical media: Their surfaces (output and interfaces) embody a gateway for recipients and users whereas the subfaces (the hardware with its specific technologies and temporality, as well as the codes) constitute an invisible layer, at best accessible for the developers. What kind of knowledge could be gained from turning the analytical view to subfaces of historical media and by working with them in the meaning of experimental archaeology? The answer to this question will be given in the second part of the seminar.

(Translation from German: Chiara Rochlitz)

Cited Works:

Bogost, Ian (2012): Alien Phenomenology, or What It’s Like to Be a Thing. University of Minnesota Press.
Coles, John (1979): Experimental archaeology. London: Academic Press.
Nake, Friedrich (2012): Information Aesthetics: An heroic experiment. In: Journal of Mathematics and the Arts, 6:2-3, 65-75, DOI: 10.1080/17513472.2012.679458 (
Bense, Max (1971): The projects of generative aesthetics. In: Reichardt, Jasia (ed.) Cybernetics, Art, and Ideas.London: Studio Vista, pp. 57–60.
Birkhoff, George David (1932):, A mathematical theory of aesthetics. In: The Rice Inst. Pamphlet. 19, pp. 189–342.
Frank, Helmar (1968): Informationsästhetik und erste Anwendung auf die mime pure. Quickborn: Schnelle.
Franke, Herbert W. (1977): A Cybernetic Approach to Aesthetics. In: Leonardo, Vol. 10, No. 3 (Summer, 1977), pp. 203–206.
Kittler, Friedrich: Computer Graphics: A Semi-Technical Introduction. In: Grey Room 02, Winter 2001, pp. 30–45.
Nake, Frieder (2008): Surface, Interface, Subface. Three Cases of Interaction and One Concept. In: Seifert, Uwe / Kim, Jin Hyun / Moore, Anthony (Eds.): Paradoxes of Interactivity. Perspectives for Media Theory, Human-Computer Interaction, and Artistic Investigations. Bielefeld: Transcript, pp. 92–109.

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