Also in this section

a096 - 10/30/2001
When Bad Girls do French Theory
Joan Hawkins
a095 - 10/8/2001
Dust Breeding
Jean Baudrillard
a094 - 5/2/2001
Material Memories
Paul D. Miller (DJ Spooky)


Email this link to a friend HOME : ARTICLES
Printer Friendly Version Articles: a093
Date Published: 3/14/2001
Arthur and Marilouise Kroker, Editors

Digitality: Approximate Aesthetics

Anna Munster

The digital camera allows a proximity to material, to skin, to the surface of paint that excels the eye's trained ability to sort and recognise. Skin pores become alien matter folding in billows, blunt bags trimmed with iridescent grease, pinked mudflats. Hair meets paint slabbed on like cold marge. Mathew Fuller [1].

Where and how to locate a digital aesthetic? In a sense the question, although unanswerable and reaching us from a recent but already faded past (circa 1993), is no longer of any value for theorists and practitioners of "new media" and "digital" arts. As an indication of both the lag and catch-up that culture, cultural practice and theorisation of that practice play with each other, the digital is itself located everywhere, if one is privileged enough to take advantage of the franchised globalisation of computing technologies. During the early 1990s, when a range of relatively new art forms such as CD-ROMs and terminal-based interactive installation exploded into cultural life, the self-conscious announcement of a genre of art work called "the digital" had some strategic, and aesthetic substance to it. But as Mitchell Whitelaw has argued, the range of practices to come under the "umbrella" of "digital art" is now so diverse and the digital as a category itself so mundane, that the art is done a disservice by being grouped in such a way [2].

Despite the fact that the notion of digitality to promote, describe or identify a still emerging aesthetic seems already jaded, I want to argue that there is nevertheless something specific about digital art. This specificity is in part a result of the mode of producing, consuming and participating with those machines that are the condition of possibility for digital art practice. These machines are not reducible to a set of technical parameters nor can the digital be considered solely in terms of the formal qualities and conditions it imposes on its products or outcomes. This is not then, an argument from the medium, particularly if the medium is to be considered as the technology that is used for the realisation of digital artwork. I want to argue, alongside writers such as Whitelaw, that the content and ideas expressed through digital art should be addressed over and above the technology that supports them. But at the same time I want to suggest that there is increasingly a sense in which it is possible to aesthetically locate the digital.

This discussion of a digital aesthetics and of a variety of digital art genres that constitute a diverging field is framed through my exploration of proximity as a structuring concern in developing a notion of a digital aesthetics. The grounds of debate shift away from concerns such as virtuality, interactivity and dematerialisation often cited as the preoccupations of digital art [3]. Relations of proximity operate at a number of levels: the closeness digital media continue to maintain and develop with other media such as cinema and photography, the redistribution of spatial and temporal relations into an experience of virtual nearness, and the kinship of the immateriality of informatics with the material strata of organic and inorganic bodies.

To set the scene for the relay of connections these proximities set off between each other I want to look at Graham Harwood's Internet artwork "Uncomfortable Proximity" [4]. It is precisely the sense of the uncomfortable that this piece technically, politically, conceptually and stylistically conveys that can act as a starting point for traversing these various levels. Harwood's site acts as a mirror to the official website of the Tate gallery in London (and its subsidiaries). Navigating through the official site allows access to his version of the site which, when activated from its hyperlink, opens as a new window in whatever net browser used on top of or next to the official site. This is the first step in pursuing proximity as an adjunct to the phenomenon of mirroring that is itself part of Internet retrieval, search and navigation. Mirroring sites is a ploy commonly used to breach copyright, divert net traffic to more obscure areas and to contravene the broadcasting of material, such as pornography, likely to come under censorship regulations. A mirrored site may simply reproduce a particular site at another server location or it may partially mirror the site in order to subvert, hack or intervene into this site. As part of the online and offline collective "Mongrel", Harwood's mirroring fits within this hacking tradition, such that the mirror no longer reflects or reproduces but functions as an other version, recalling critically, hacking into and redistributing its meanings across the network [5].

Perhaps what allows this strategy to remain startling and to produce its uncomfortable affectivity is the proximity of Harwood's mirror, sitting as it does on the same desktop as the public Internet face of the Tate. It is not the deployment of a hacking strategy per se that allows the politics and aesthetics of this digital work to unfold here; mimicry as ironic comment or subversion is a well-trodden path within postmodern cultural practice. "Uncomfortable Proximity" operates by unleashing momentary flashes of astonishment, discomfort and squeamishness, mobilising the capacities of digital technologies themselves to forge extreme juxtapositions, unbearable proximities, unspeakable intimacies. The proximity Harwood's site offers to the Tate disturbs the comfortable and bland proximities information collection on the desktop or in the archive offers us. The notion that the terminal itself gathers up the world or provides a window onto it is shattered as we begin to feel that terminals might instead be nodes for siphoning, blocking and redistributing informational spaces. For Harwood the world is not reducible via terminal art or identity to universal history, knowledge or aesthetic experience. Information itself becomes a differential space for the collision of different worlds. The piece is then not just a comment, a subversion or a dull parody but provides, as Mathew Fuller argues, an opening up of the history and politics of the visual that the Tate has a hand in constructing [6]. That is, of contributing to an exclusive, class-based canon of British art history. The public and authorised space of the gallery and museum often finds its continuance through the Internet, with just about every large institution using digital media to reproduce or disseminate its "collection". "Uncomfortable Proximity" acts to break up the homogeneity of this space and to take the museal on a diversion through its heterogeneous genesis [7].

The sensation the work produces for the viewer/user is not suspension of belief and/or acquiesence to the phantasmagoric digital world but disbelief, disconnection, discomfort. This may on the surface of it break the link between viewer/user and artist almost as if there is a need to move back, away from the monitor and disengage from the interactive process. But it also produces a sensation of discomfort that, in terms of proximate embodied experiences, gives us a sense of Harwood's own discomfort. If interactive art or technologies are thought only in terms of the technical level of interactivity that occurs, that is, the degree to which the participant is cybernetically incorporated into the system - the parameters of which are preordained - then we lose the aesthetic moment as sensate experience of that art. An aesthetic interaction with digital art may simultaneously require systemic disconnection.

Harwood takes digital snapshots of the Tate's British masters, Turner, Gainsborough, Hogarth; snapshots designed not to disseminate the perfect copy but to show up the dirty texture of low-resolution imaging. Using the techniques that make up the stock of digital manipulation - cut, copy, paste - he creates roughly hewn portraits carved from the masters, juxtaposed with images of his own body, those of family and friends and of the skin of infected bodies and the visceral, dredged-up landscape of the Thames river adjoining the site of Tate Modern. While so much digital imaging manipulation is devoted to a construction of the seamless, Harwood points instead to artifice and to the sense in which this can literally be productive of links: links to the excluded, the minor, the disenfranchised and those obliterated from public and institutional histories [8]. The juxtaposition of canonical painting to embodied biographical images that Harwood achieves in his portraits, for example in Hogarth, My Mum 1700 -2000, is made possible by the artifice of digital imaging techniques and the flatness of low-resolution digital imaging which gives to texture an informatic surfacing. This is particularly noticeable in online terminal-based work where, as a result of the necessity for compression, visuals lose information and gain noise and where they also glow with the luminance of the computer monitor. These conditions, that constitute part of the materiality of the digital work (that is, the material conditions for both the production and reception of it), pass into the sensations experienced by engaging with a work such as "Uncomfortable Proximity". Not a sense of disembodiment and connection to a society of mind but of bodies pressing together, too close to each other for comfort:

Eyes of muscle, water and jelly share the same surface tension as those of dried-up and lacquered oil in a self-portrait by Hogarth. Beeswaxed curls crust up into sheets of colour, a microcosmic gesture on canvas becomes enough to smother a head [9].

Proximity allows Harwood to develop a digital aesthetic that locates digital technology itself as more than a medium but less than an enframing or determining cultural structure. Developing the digital through a proximity to images of organic and embodied life and interweaving these with the materials of official and unofficial histories (those, who like him, experienced the Tate as an institution of the British class system), Harwood finds himself in the midst of the compositional process.

Digital art certainly has no claims to an exclusive modus operandus when it comes to composition. But it does seem to allow for particular modes of composition that can create zones through which the organic and machinic become approximate to each other. Digital artists often produce those sensational flashes of wonder, shock, incredulity and squeamishness by laying out both corporeality and the informatic across a plane of artificiality, where, particularly within the context of the digital image, both function as productions, inventions, chicanery. Art's archives and collections may lie in wait for the promise of restoration to the public that digital media, viewed as a mechanism of reproduction and pure translation, seem to offer. But the rough, immediate and poor quality of the approximate that they actually deliver can provide the stuff of a different aesthetics, an aesthetics that connects to life as a process of composing/compositing the self. Harwood indicates that the digital is not a technology that easily or seamlessly facilitates this process but rather one that lays open the very wounds and edges that are the interface to proximities.

The borders between the scabs and Turner fragments, the hair follicles of his sister and the brush strokes of an oil, the polluted mud of the river and the aura of the masterpiece, are scars. They mark Harwood's own memories of walking the Tate, seeing the art, but feeling that he did not belong to its world. But they also follow the lines of the abrupt intimacies that the digital offers us, bumping up next to the skin of others and recoiling from that sensation. Never quite connecting with "the other", always evading the full sensorium of others and feeling one's way along the edges of interfaces; gaining at the same time, perhaps the sense and textures drawn in by the alterity which is the machine.

There are of course decompositions that the digital makes of other media such as the photographic which we might be tempted to think about in terms of lost materialities. But surely we have moved into a different cultural perception of the image than continually counterposing the digital to the photographic analogue. In this scenario, digitality can never become proximate to materiality aesthetically, kineasthetically or technically and always emerges with a deficit. But digital modes of image production are no less kinaesthetic simply because they are negotiated through coded terrain. They do however constitute a deterritorialisation of the hand; indeed as Deleuze suggests they envelop the hand completely within their internal relations:

Once again, these basic units or elementary visual forms [ie digital code] are indeed aesthetic and not mathematic, inasmuch as they have completely internalised the manual movement that produces them [10].

Harwood's rough tears at the borders of his images, the jamming of incongruities to form class proximities experienced as bodily memories of the "out-of-place", the slapdash movement of hand to mouse to screen constitute one form of a digital kinaesthetics that becomes productive of aesthetic experience.

Defining the practice via the medium without regard to its differential proximities has landed digital art and in particular high-tech digital artwork and artists in a rather paradoxical political and cultural position. On the one hand it has secured (for a few) a place for such art within a more general rhetoric that expounds a constantly upgradable notion of digitality as "state-of-the-art"[11]. Roy Ascott, for example, has been at the forefront of this position on digital art, arguing that the computer is not simply a tool but an entirely new medium ushering in a new visual language and producing new relations for making and receiving the digitally produced artwork [12]. These kinds of pronouncements of vanguardism have seen a range of none too critical writings accrue to support the doctrine of a practice and culture that follows the rhythm of the technology itself; always ahead of its actualisation, always awaiting the future as a new version of itself.

On the other hand, the notion that art can be defined according to the medium through which it is realised stands firmly within the discourse of modernism. As Greenberg argued in his essay, "Modernist Painting", what was unique to a particular art coincided with what was unique about the medium it deployed [13]. Indeed, according to him modernism is above all a mode of calling attention to the conditions and limitations of a medium in order to produce from these something new, something positive out of the nature of the medium itself. The concentration on technology per se, whether it features as part of the content, the development of a kind of digital style or the emphasis on computational processes, thus draws so much of this "cutting edge" digital artwork back within a modernist tradition. During the late 1980s and early 1990s writers such as Frank Popper and Cynthia Goodman promoted digital art as a new aesthetic based upon the nature of the medium [14]. But this reads now a little like an attempt to provide the digital with a genealogy that would legitimate it by entrenching it within acceptable art history traditions.

Both Darren Tofts and Steven Holtzman have argued that digital art is endemic to the computer [15]. But they both broaden the argument from the medium and from a strictly modernist position to suggest that digital art occurs after the event of the computer. Tofts argues that this event has an impact upon our notions of spectatorship in general. Rather than the much touted collapse of the division between artwork and viewer, computer interactivity particularly as it occurs via the computer terminal makes us aware of the perceptual space that surrounds the terminal. In other words, the computer provides a non-immersive and artificial space for exhibiting and interacting with digital art more akin to theatrical and staged space than to the promise of total identification that virtual reality makes. This then is an argument about the computer as apparatus rather than the computer as medium and offers us a more expansive version of the ways in which there may be a specificity to the aesthetics or experience of computer art. From a different angle, Holzman although reliant upon much modernist debate about the essential characteristics of a medium to an art, still offers the important point that digital technologies offer us a new language for expression and that this language is part of the development of digital media [16]. Tofts use of the term apparatus to refer to the computer reminds us that it is more than just a technology and that the digital is also indebted to its proximity to other media histories such as those of the cinema. Yet aesthetic, embodied experience remains an impoverished term within the range of his argument.

My sense of the aesthetic possibilities produced by the event of the digital computer comes from the way in which digitality provides a set of lived circumstances in which our senses encroach upon us in a different way. This occurs via a particular kind of mediation that gives rise to the production of a certain kind of artwork. My project to locate a digital aesthetics is not foremost about the tradition that gives rise to digital art nor is it a speculation about an art that will take us ever further into the future. It is about the contemporary moment. It offers the digital not as a brave new category or as an umbrella for all that exists by artists working with digital technologies. Instead it offers itself up as an approximate aesthetics. Living life under the sign of the digital is about the emergence of a spatiality and duration in which relative speeds and differential relations are foregrounded in embodied experience. It is these conditions that constitute the basis for an approximate aesthetics of the digital. Digital art then, is partly dependant upon what it offers us specifically and uniquely as it affects us through its "blocs of sensation" [17]. The "bloc" or zone according to Deleuze and Guattari, designates a relational area of sensibility, the indeterminate feeling of sensate participation in the material world, organic or inorganic:

Life alone creates such zones where living beings whirl around, and only art can reach them and penetrate them in its enterprise of co-creation. This is because from the moment the material passes into sensation, as in a Rodin sculpture, art itself lives on in these zones of indetermination. They are blocs [18].

This of course is to suggest that the notion of the aesthetic needs to be rethought as an area not so much dependant upon style, media or the formal qualities of an art but upon the arena of sensation itself. Following this rethinking of art's zone of operation as the affect, the aesthetic is concerned with a range of corporeal processes. It is about a plane of experience which allows for the intersection of the force a sense impression exerts upon the body to a mediated reflection upon this and of course the continual movements between these. The aesthetic as aesthesia would not distinguish between experience and contemplation of that experience as two operations springing from different faculties. Instead it attends to the way that sensation could be productive of both of these across an expansive, experiential plane. These movements, Deleuze and Guattari argue, are almost impossible to detect; molecular, on the verge of imperceptibility, they hit us at lightening speeds. It is perhaps this movement, so difficult to pin down, that we experience almost as after-taste when engaging with art, and as the rendering of these forces into something concrete through the materiality of a medium when producing art [19].

But if the aesthetic is specifically concerned in this way with the becoming of sensation then it must also take into account the conditions under which that corporeal becoming occurs. I am not suggesting that digitally mediated experience can lay a privileged claim to these marginal movements of perception and sensation. Rather I would suggest that a preoccupation with movements between different perceptual states, accelerated and accentuated through engagements with machinic perception, does give the digital certain currency in relation to the mutation of affect and the production of new affects. It is in exploring a relation to the possibilities of machinic perception - the different speeds of engagement that it demands from the interactant and also the artist, its instantaneity coupled with the interminable frustrations, stoppages (the computer crash) and waiting periods - that we can begin to see the aesthesia of the digital operate. We need here to think of speed not as an absolute tool of measurement, when for example the speed of light is invoked in an absolutist manner or the processing speed of the computer becomes a measure for machine/corporeal experience. Speed is an intensive, differential, corporeal quality. The relations of movement that make up the speed of a particular body also allow it to be affected by and affect other bodies. It is possible to change these qualitative relations of speed by entering into affective relations with other bodies and creating new affective compounds [20].

Digital proximities are foremost about new relations to movement, although these necessarily lead us to think through questions of spatiality particularly as these are fleshed out through geopoltical changes. Perhaps the preoccupation with disembodiment or dematerialisation within some digital art results from riding roughshod over the differential speeds at which both digital technologies and human corporealities move. As Katherine Hayles has argued, the materiality of embodiment has a particular way of receiving and generating meaning that gives it a vector of movement that may be parallel to or out of sync with but definitively not the same as vectors of digital information [21]. Another way of stating this is to look at the way in which embodiment also carries senses of personal and cultural histories that often seems to linger, enmeshed in the fibres of bodily memory. As Jill Bennett states:

The poetics of sense memory involve not so much speaking of but speaking out of a particular memory or experience - in other words, speaking from the body sustaining sensation [22].

These histories themselves distribute different kinds of speeds within and across the differences of humans' bodies, making them resistant, slow, malleable, adaptable, heavy and light. But as Hayles suggests, digital signals may have a mode of altering such things as history and memory in ways that seem out of tempo with embodied experience "information technologies create what I will call flickering signifiers, characterised by their tendency toward unexpected metamorphoses, attenuations and dispersions" [23].

It is the differential relation of informational speeds to embodied speeds that has the potential to create turbulent "blocs" of sensation. These occur when, for example, objects morph into strange and unknown shapes in digital animations or astonishing links between areas of information become immediately proximate to each other through online hyperlinks resulting in affective wonder, laughter or surprise. Or the screen freezes and adrenalin plummets and anger rises, as our game character no longer moves in sync with our movements at the control panel. I want to argue that there is a body of digital artwork emerging that specifically "speaks out of" particular sensations sustained, to argue Bennett's point in another context, through the relation of digital to corporeal speeds [24]. This work is concerned with the proximity of forces captured in the production of art work to those affectively produced in the works reception by its possible viewers. What is also interesting is the extent to which this work is located at points of convergence and conflict with the speeds of digital technologies that affect our broader day-to-day engagement with machines and cultures. Artists working with digital media do concern themselves with the permutations that their material undergoes by entering into a relation with code and the capacities of the digital to be affective. That is to say, the material that sustains the sensations or through which an artist enters into affective compounds also passes through a becoming-incorporeal in digital work.

The form through which a work is realised digitally does, to an extent, also relate to this issue of speed and its differentials. The attention Hayles draws to the phenomenon of flickering is important for it reminds us of the material conditions under which we most commonly engage with visual digital technologies; the peculiar rolling light of the computer monitor. The monitor has proved to be a difficult space for engaging with digital art perhaps because it accentuates unbearably that flickering of light but also because it limits the area for flickering as semiosis, as the glimmering transformative qualities of the digital to which Hayles also refers by invoking this term. Digital artists have often opted to change the speed of the flicker itself by outputting terminal work to print media and freezing that movement, as it were. Or else they have created installation spaces using large screen projection or video cube/walls that mediate that flicker through another display technology such as the video monitor. When it comes to considering what kind of aesthetic experiences digital art works offer us we need to consider the hypermediation of the technology itself through a range of media machines (video, television, print, photography) and the speeds through which they engage us with the technology. In other words, it is not just our bodies that introduce the question of histories into the discussion but also digital media themselves.

Rather than producing an exact science of feelings or resulting in a judgement of taste, a digital aesthetics would at best be an approximation. This is not to say that the digital misses its mark but rather that we need to be cognisant of what the conditions for contemporary media experience are likely to be. Digital media are quite capable of registering affectively; we underestimate our corporeal capacities if we suggest that the speed and geographical fragmentation wrought by these media lead to dematerialisation, indifference or desensitisation. But we also need to be wary of the claims made for digital media's abilities to capture a more authentic or fuller sensorium because of its proximity to "the real". As Lev Manovich has argued, the digital's claim to the real is part of a retrospectively constructed genealogy of Western visual realism that places the digital image, in particular, as the progressive overcoming of older technically degraded media [25]. It is possible and perhaps preferable to unhinge this kind of genealogy by ceasing to pronounce the digital necessary heir to a dominant tradition. As Maras and Sutton argue, a medium is not a single system but a production that is inherently unstable. They argue for:

the possibility of understanding medium specificity not in terms of purity or as a norm, but precisely as a product of interaction between different elements in an assemblage of material processes [26].

Digital media have a number of lineages then that can be recalled depending upon the way these media coalesce and interact with other media at specific times. They also have the ability to rearrange these histories in relation to each other and in relation to the flows of other matter, such as human corporealities, with and into new modes of expression.

Approximation as a qualification of the proximate allows several new ways of dealing with digital aesthetics. First, it captures the sense in which an attempt to theorise contemporary artwork and practices like digital art never quite reaches its destination because the contemporary is always temporary and is in the process of being remade. This occurs at varying speeds wrought by the relations of corporeal and media histories to each other. An absolute measure of speed is unlikely to adequately capture the differential of these forces but we can provide estimations of the affectivity produced as part of digital experiences. Second, approximation machinically qualifies the sensation of those flashes of affectivity and indeed the affective hankering after flickering speeds that surround the making and consumption of digital art as we conterminously make of the digital our habitus. Experience of digital artwork is marked by the broader cultural claims that the integration of computing into day-to-day life brings about. The most consistent of these claims is for the proximity of the digital to housing the real, gleaned at the level not just of photorealism but also as digital software, hardware and artists promise their audiences access to the full sensorium [27].

In important ways then a digital aesthetics depends upon the fact that digital art is culturally indebted to the popularisation of ideas and claims about what digital technologies are capable of achieving. Rather than making the notion of digital art culturally obsolete, the proximity of this art to the integration of digital technologies into life remains an ongoing raison d'etre for a number of artists making digital work. This has meant that digital aesthetics can and have also become approximate to a politics where the artwork has concentrated on the creation of a digital mode that is syncopated to the rhythms of an emerging experience of embodiment marked by digitality. For a number of female digital artists working within a postfeminist arena and for people of colour operating within the politics of postcolonialism this is emerging as an ongoing concern. Most importantly approximation gives us a way to look at what I am suggesting is one of the most important conditions and issues running through digital art, the problem of proximity itself [28].

Proximity itself becomes a mode of elaborating not just a relation to technology but to others and to culture as it is digitally inflected. Proximity is thus a way of fleshing out the aesthetics of artwork that must take into account its reliance on a particular kind of machine, simultaneously landing the digital artist within the sphere of the ethical and political. This is not to say that all digital artists voice these concerns or are willing to engage with these issues. But some of the more conceptually interesting although possibly less technically "cutting edge" digital work signals belonging to this proximate aesthetics. It is possible to argue for a digital aesthetics that is not confined to the qualities of the medium, but does develop its own particular concerns produced through the embodied experiences of living in digital times. Working through this notion of proximity indicates how a digital aesthetics can provide us with a strange set of affinities for both producing and engaging with new media's artefacts. Approximation is about paring down the expectations that the digital, and in particular digital art, has been burdened with: delivering the real, promising freedom, authenticity or utopia. But is also about nearness, the way in which digital media have an odd way of creating affinities and compounds.

Digital media do, on a larger scale provide the platform for a broader process of self-composition. This is not to argue that they provide some renewed possibility of self-representation or that they are inherently libertarian or that access to them will provide for a more open political process. As black artists such as Keith Piper or writers such as Cameron Bailey have explicitly shown, cyberspace is equally a synergy of corporate and military surveillance technologies. These regulate, for example, the flow of immigrant workers in and out of the collapsed nation states and borders of virtual territories such as the "new European state" [29]. In his interactive installation of 1992, Tagging the Other, Piper highlights how digital technologies of surveillance have produced an "other" to this fictional white state. This "otherness" has been composed by technologically monitoring the bodies, lives and movements of South East Asian, West Indian and African migrants forced to locate and relocate themselves in the wake of reconfigurations of technology at a worldwide level. Bailey and Piper offer us an interesting extension to the debate around disembodiment by calling attention to the limits of composing subjectivities that unmitigated notions of flux surrounding the rhetoric of new technologies in fact imply. In other words, one disembodied avatar's gender, race or class fluidity is another person's lived and dislocated embodiment.

Initial euphoria surrounding the seeming lack of bodily markers in cyberspatial relations tended to line up with hope for a politics of tolerance, in for example Sherry Turkle's exploration of net culture in Life on the Screen [30]. But artists such as Harwood and Piper and remind us that this rhetoric belongs to the time and space of particular kinds of subjective compositions. It is here that aesthetics opens onto and approximates the questions of ethics, of our embodied relations and actions towards others. In composing the self, given that living digitally that self is foregrounded as networked and distributed, we are also immanently composing our relations to others, relations of course which are not fluid in the way information promotes itself to be. In Sean Cubitt's words then, there is a "radical disjuncture between the new media and the new geopolitics" [31]. As Maria Fernandez argues, constructions of identity by electronic media theorists and participants tend to revolve around the extent to which the individual can create or control their sense of self [32]. This form of hyperindividuation places the self once more at the centre of a world: claiming a stake in virtual real estate, controlling the production of virtual gameworlds and for those artists who deny the ethical implications of their aesthetic productions, producing digital work that feeds into a universalist (albeit a flowing, mobilising), informatics.

Cubitt's work on digital aesthetics is important because it implicates aesthetics within the realm of the ethical by insisting on the relation between digital art and the economic and social polarisations brought about by the more general deployment of digital technologies. Connectivity, for example, cannot just be thought as experiences produced by interactive artwork, but as a broader flow of information that links only certain networks of people throughout the world (primarily corporate networks) [33]. But Cubitt invests both too much and too little within the aesthetic sphere. For him, aesthetics should offer us a different mode of living in the world, one which is not of the present time, but for the future. A digital aesthetics must transcend its current preoccupations with sedimenting the power of the coherent self. Cubitt places an engagement with aesthetics as a contemplative exercise designed to reflect upon the state of the world. But aesthetics is very much in and of the world and because it is so situated at the site of bodies and sensations, reflection does not work well as its mode of operation. The artwork and the digital work no less, cannot offer us, ahead of itself, the conditions for a better life; it can only give itself over to the life it is in the process of becoming.

Fernandez makes the salient point that where electronic art and the postcolonial impulse have met tends to be within digital art forms such as digital photomedia and video work, already regarded by some as obsolete practices of new media [34]. This is enough to remind us that the hankering after ever newer, grander more complex schemes to support or actualise art work, especially technological art, is itself an indication of the wider global distribution of digital technologies towards the needs and desires of an elite, usually first world, few. To suggest then that digital art dissolves into the ubiquity of digital life is to forget that digital technologies are most definitely not located everywhere or evenly. It is worthwhile pulling apart the digital as a universal arrangement and into a diversity of practices whose differences are produced not simply formally but also via the differing cultural and economic conditions that the bodies engaged in making and consuming the work find themselves. So while this implicates a digital aesthetics within an ethics of digitality, it does not guarantee that the digital will raise itself via this connection to more democratic proportions.

The CD-ROM as a digital art practice is placed at the intersection of a number of these problems and concerns and proves a useful form to help further elaborate them. In the spirit of Hernandez's comments about the aesthetic obsolescence of particular areas of digital art, the CD-ROM could likewise be seen as having passed its used-by date. Interest in it seemed to peak around the mid-90s and this was marked in Australia, for example, by the 1996 Burning the Interface exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art [35]. While CD-ROMs continue to be made by artists and attract both commercial and public sector funding and investment, the form itself seems to have given way to attention around or to high-tech interactive installations. There is a sense in which the CD-ROM as artwork has failed; failed to attract the commodification of digital art that it seemed to so easily promise in its cheap and distributable form and failed as a form to deliver the multimedia experience as an aesthetic experience [36]. The Burning the Interface exhibition marked this failure, presenting rows and rows of computer terminals with different groupings of artists' work at each terminal for viewers to sit at, all housed within the conventional white wall, concrete floor of the modern gallery space. Although the work was public, only one person could use a terminal at a time and the separation between notions of the private producer and consumer of digital media and the public as an audience for contemporary digital art became only too clear. Not only did the show bring to the fore the problem of the monitor as a space for viewing/engaging with digital art, but also in the promise invested in delivering multimedia at a mass level. This promise to provide vast quantities of heterogeneous data within a standardised space (the desktop), at a speed at least comparable to broadcast media - largely failed to be met [37].

And yet artists continue to make CD-ROMs and indeed it has become an area for developing work that is often more ostensibly politically engaged with the structures of information cultures and the problems of the senses and embodiment in relation to these structures. In order to understand why this is the case we need to think through the question of what kind of aesthetic experience can be offered by the CD-ROM as an art work and how this also engages us with broader questions about where it is placed in relation to other digital media. As a number of writers have argued, the interactivity of the CD-ROM often amounts to choosing between predetermined choices specified by the parameters of the coding and hence the feeling of immersion or engagement with the piece, its access to a "full" virtual engagement seems poorly approximate [38]. The CD-ROM is haunted by its inability to be digital or to fulfill the promise of the digital. This failure translates for the audience of the CD-ROM artwork into frantically clicking and sweeping the cursor across the screen waiting for it to refresh, to provide more information, to come up to speed.

But this is precisely why the CD-ROM could be considered the digital art form par excellence if we think about it from the standpoint of the arguments I have been making about an approximate aesthetics. Coalescing in one place we find, particularly in artists' CD-ROMs, speed itself becoming a set of differential relations. These are enacted between the participant, the artwork, the bodies that sustain the production of the work (that is the artist and their collaborators - programmers, designers, sound artists etc) and the assemblage that is the technology of the digital computer. That frantic clicking for more information is in part produced in relation to the broader promise of digital media capable of operating at inhuman speeds. But it is also a sensation produced in (inverse) relation to the body of the artist making the CD-ROM. Typically an artists' CD-ROM takes around two years to make. During this time one finds oneself concentrating enormous amounts of bodily energy around the small space of the monitor, clicking frantically within the parameters of off-the shelf software that never seems to fit the infinite horizon of possibilities that is the project. Making a CD-ROM forces one's body to move at lightening speeds, gathering endless quantities of material from heterogeneous sources, losing duration for hours in the space of the monitor's flicker, concentrating the diverging forces of the body to remain tied to rapid eye and hand movements. But it is also incomparably slow, hours of dragging the cursor across a landscape of code to find one small programming flaw, the repetition of imaging processes, the constant disruption of imagining the user as interactor, becoming part of the work's process. Aside from any content that CD-ROMs might draw from in terms of the corporeal, they are intimately caught up with the sensations of digital embodiment as sets of differential speeds from both the perspective of the artist and the person interacting with the artwork. As artist Linda Dement states:

Aside from the content being from the physical, my flesh, sitting restrained at the desk burning my eyes out at the monitor - there's that thing that happens when you restrain and focus physical energy, tension and stillness and of course eventually pain & damage. Almost trance like if it's going well [39].

The CD-ROM itself comes out of a relation (or tension) between movement and stillness experienced at the embodied level of its production and by engaging, for the user, with its limited form of digital interactivity. If its affective dimension so often registers as malaise or fatigue with its audience this is perhaps also because it is for the artist about a tiring of the body in relation to the triumphant onward march of information, media and technological saturation. As Douglas Kahn notes the CD-ROM comes out of a process of creative fatigue [40]. The fatiguing of media forms as they recycle themselves through the multimedia format, the fatigue of the artist's body adjusting to the rhythm of media cycling and technological upgrade and unfortunately often the end fatigue of the user who easily tires of its iterative structures. The art of the CD-ROM, against its dissolution into an aesthetics of the everyday boredom of the computer terminal, must lie in its ability to not just recombine as Kahn suggests but to recompound or recompose the self as resensitisable.

Linda Dement's CD-ROM In My Gash moves us in this direction. Not towards the desensitisation of photography and a metaphorics of loss but towards a resensitisation of the nervous system as a set of pathways not contained within or on the skin but forming as relational pathways to machines. Rather than abandoning a photographic practice, she has allowed the multimedia platform to reassemble her visual practices and preoccupations. Dement's work has consistently valued a rich, visual style garnered from her initial aesthetic practice as a studio-based photomedia artist. In a sense, In My Gash, represents the outcome of Dement's unwillingness to abandon the quality of the photographic intermeshed with the potential that low-end interactive media are only beginning to show. But In My Gash is more cognisant of the space-time of the computer monitor and its flickering inability to hold the viewer's gaze. While these conditions for new media perception often lead to an hysterical oversaturation of information, Dement uses the opulence of her photographic practice to slow down this propensity. In My Gash allows the fullness of her imagery to unfold in relation to the user's actions, revealing layers and screens of lacerated bodily organs, destroyed petals, discarded syringes and torn limbs to appear and fade across the field of vision. Subsequently the manic desire to point and click that informs so much interactivity gives way here to an engagement with the piece as multi-mediated. This tends to provide a slower tempo for engagement; iterations do not follow the speed of cyclical repetition but move in terms of the decomposition and recomposition of images. At other points filmic fragments seem to tear at the fabric of the synthetic computer image as if the medium that carries an image were itself capable of bearing down upon the body and wounding it with sensations. What Dement has been so successful in achieving through her practice is to redeploy photographic and filmic decoupage as the dream and memory space for multimedia. The aesthetic experience as the experience of engaging the interactant at the level of sensation, a shiver in response to the dilating and contracting of Dement's digital wounds, is simultaneously a digital mediation of other media experiences.

The zones of proximity digitality can call up for us in contemporary life include the digital's relations to other media forms such as the photographic and the cinematic and to institutions such as the gallery, museum and archive in which art and media are housed and displayed. They also include our relations to others in the world and thus implicate the production of digital aesthetics within a wider context of ethics. As a result of both of these foregoing sets of relations, digitality as an aesthesia is produced in a relation of (a)proximity to embodiment. I have signalled that this closeness to the sensate and affective dimensions of life can only be grasped as approximate. Yet the aesthetic experiences this produces might be described as uncomfortable in their proximity, in the case of Harwood's work or galvanic in a work like Dement's In My Gash. The digital in both its production by artists and consumption by audiences introduces a universe of reference that is both hypermediated and incorporeal. But current experiences of extended and distributed embodiment, which aesthetic digital experience can offers us, are also recompositions of materiality through its differential relation to immaterial information.


[1] M. Fuller, "Breach the pieces" (accessed 16/02/01).

[2] Mitchell Whitelaw, "The end of new media art?", Working the Screen 2000, special issue of Realtime, no.38, August-September 2000, p.7. The same point was made at the end of the 1980s when the nomenclature of "computer art" was beginning to seem a little drab. See, R. Wright, "The Image in Art" and "Computer Art", Leonardo, Computer Art in Context Supplemental Issue, 1989, pp.49-53.

[3] See for example F. Popper, The Art of the Electronic Age, Thames and Hudson, London, 1993.pp.86-87.

[4] See Harwood@mongrel, "Uncomfortable Proximity" (accessed 15/02/01)

[5] Mongrel in fact deploy a general strategy of hacking to create parallel .networks and virtual spaces rather than as a means to directly subvert or destroy pre-existing sites. Their development of the "Natural Selection" project uses code from widely used Internet search engines redesigned to promote portals for anti-racist sites and artwork. See (accessed 10/10/00).s

[6] See M. Fuller, "Breach the Pieces", op. cit.

[7] ibid. It is this breaking up of space achieved by producing relations between the virtual and the concrete, the digital and the actual which occurs so often in digital art. This makes it resonate with earlier spaces of museum collection that began in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries through, for example, the Wunderkammer. See B. M. Stafford, Good Looking: Essays on the Virtue of Images, MIT Press, London and Cambridge, 1996, pp.32-34.

[8] Harwood@mongrel "Uncomfortable Proximity", op. cit.

[9] M. Fuller, "Breach the Pieces", op. cit.

[10] See G. Deleuze, Francis Bacon: The logic of sensation, D. W. Smith, private translation, 1992, p.61.

[11] R.L. Rutsky has made a sustained argument for the fetishism that surrounds the notion of "state-of-the-art" in relation to technology in the way that artists, designers, theorists, entrepreneurs, publicists and advertisers all deploy this term. See R. L. Rutsky, High Techne: Art and Technology from the Machine Aesthetic to the Posthuman, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis and London, 1999.

[12] See, for example, R. Ascott, "On Networking", Leonardo, vol.21, no.3, 1988, pp.231-2.

[13] C. Greenberg, "Modernist Painting", Art and Literature, no.4, Spring 1965, pp.193-201.

[14] See, F. Popper, The Art of the Electronic Age, Thames and Hudson, London, 1993; and C. Goodman, Digital Visions: Computers and Art, Harry N. Abrams, Inc. Publishers, New York, 1987.

[15] See D. Tofts, "Your Place or Mine?: Locating Digital Art", Mesh, no.10, Spring 1996, pp.3-4 and S. Holtzman, Digital Mosaics: The Aesthetics of Cyberspace, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1997.

[16] This point is likewise made by Steven Maras and David Sutton in their article, "Medium Specificity Re-Visited", Convergence: The Journal of Research into New Media Technologies, vol.6, no.2, Summer 2000, pp.99-113. This article is particularly useful, mapping out a recent history of the notion of medium specificity in relation to new media.

[17] This is Deleuze and Guattari's description of the grouping of sensations into affectual moments that occur in aesthetic experience. See, G. Deleuze and F. Guattari, "What is Philosophy?", H. Tomlinson trans, Columbia University Press, New York, 1994, pp.173-4.

[18] ibid., p.173.

[19] ibid.

[20] G. Deleuze, "Ethology: Spinoza and Us", Incorporations, eds J. Crarey and S. Kwinter, Zone Books, New York, 1992, p.262.

[21] N. K. Hayles, " Virtual Bodies and Flickering Signifiers", Electronic Culture: Technology and Visual Representation, T. Druckrey ed, Aperture Foundation, New York, 1996, pp.262-3.

[22] J. Bennett, "The Aesthetics of Sense-memory: Theorising Trauma Through The Visual Arts", eds F. Kaltenbexk and P. Weibel, Trauma and Memory: Cross-Cultural Perspectives, Passagen Verlag, Graz, 2000, p.87. Bennett's argument in this paper develops some of Deleuze's notions of sensation to account for the way in which visual arts can be produced out of a field of bodily memories (such as those of child abuse) and can also produce affective responses in the viewer. She argues against the notion of art as representation as this removes the aesthetic experience of the artwork, especially artwork dealing with traumatic experience, away from the bodily context out of which it is produced by the artist and which allows it to register for its audiences.

[23] N. K. Hayles, "Virtual Bodies and Flickering Signifiers", Electronic Culture: Technology and Visual Representation, op. cit., p.263.

[24] J. Bennett, "The Aesthetics of Sense-memory: Theorising Trauma Through The Visual Arts" op. cit.

[25] L. Manovich, "The Paradoxes of Digital Photography", 15/02/01).

[26] S. Maras and D. Sutton "Medium Specificity Re-Visited", Convergence: The Journal of Research into New Media Technologies, op. cit., p.102.

[27] Perhaps the best example would be Jaron Lanier's prediction for an ultimate experience of virtual reality in which all of the senses would respond to the experience of a virtually created and shared reality. See, J. Lanier, "A Vintage Virtual Reality Interview" 16/9/00).

[28] My discussion of this notion of proximity was spurred on by conversations held over the last year with Mitchell Whitelaw. I am grateful for his sense of provocation and for his intellectual and conversational generosity.

[29] See, for example, Piper's own discussion of his piece:

The new technologies that are being implemented to fix and survey the "un-European other", in the faltering consolidation of this "new European state", form the basis of Tagging the Other. Central to the piece are the framing and fixing of the black European, under a high-tech gaze - a gaze that seeks to classify and codify the individual within an arena where the logical constraints of race, ethnicity, nationality and culture are unchanging, and delineated in a discourse of exclusion.

K. Piper, "Tagging the Other", Iterations: The New Image,. T. Druckrey ed, International Centre of Photography and MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, and London, 1993, p.121.

[30] See, for example, Turkle's argument:

When identity was defined as unitary and solid, it was relatively easy to recognise and censure deviation from a norm. A more fluid sense of self allows a greater capacity for understanding diversity. It makes it easier to accept the array of our (and others') inconsistent personae - perhaps with humour, perhaps with irony. We do not feel compelled to rank or judge the elements of our multiplicity. We do not feel compelled to exclude what does not fit.

S. Turkle, Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet, Phoenix, London, 1997, pp.261-2.

[31] S. Cubitt, "Orbus Tertius", Third Text, no.47, Summer 1999, p.3.

[32] M. Fernandez, "Postcolonial Media Theory", Third Text, no.47, Summer 1999, p.14.

[33] ibid., p.14.

[34] M. Fernandez, "Postcolonial Media Theory", op. cit., p.15.

[35] The Burning the Interface exhibition ran from 27 March to 14 July 1996 at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, Australia. It was curated by Mike Leggett and Linda Michael and was an international survey of CD-ROMs by artists.

[36] Michael Punt argues that the CD-ROM has failed to deliver as a mass market phenomenon because of the technological constraints that it places on the user - one can only read and retrieve data, not write back to it - and because the way in which it has been conceived by producers as a storage medium. Users on the other hand use it to retrieve information but producers often fail to look at the models of retrieval they build into their design. As a result the interactivity of the CD-ROM is hardly that; the user is reduced to merely following the "command" to retrieve and as a result finds the experience to be one of a command control dynamic rather than the celebrated, open, connected, democratic, multimedia environment. See M. Punt, "CD-ROM: Radical Nostalgia? Cinema History, Cinema Theory and New Technology", Leonardo, vol.28, no.5, 1995, pp.387-394.

[37] See ibid., pp.388-9.

[38] See for example, Z. Sofoulis, "Interactivity, Intersubjectivity and the Artwork/Network", Mesh, no.10, 1996, pp.32-5; and K. Murray, "Mouse, where is thy sting?" Burning the Interface: International Artists' CD-ROM, catalogue, Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, 1996.

[39] Private email correspondence with Linda Dement, August 8, 2000.

[40] D.Kahn, "What Now the Promise?", Burning the Interface: International Artist's CD-ROM, op. cit, p.24.

Anna Munster lectures in Digital Media Theory in the School of Art History and Theory at the College of Fine Arts, University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia. She is also a practising digital artist whose digital print work was recently part of the USA touring exhibition Digital2000 for ASCI. She has just completed a website wundernet ( on wonder, curiosity, the digital and baroque and is currently working on a CD-ROM expansion of this titled Wunderkammer, due for release in 2001.
© CTheory. All Rights Reserved