[ARENA] abroeck: Deep Screen - Art in Digital Culture

Andreas Broeckmann ab mikro.in-berlin.de
Quarta-Feira, 4 de Junho de 2008 - 08:16:40 WEST

(last week, we opened the exhibition 'Deep Screen - Art in Digital  
Culture' at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, which runs until 30  
September 2008; below is my introductory text which, I hope, will  
contribute to the ongoing debate on art and media; in the 'Postscript  
on Media Art', I diagnose 'the liberation of artistic media' ...  
Comments are, of course, welcome. -ab)

exhibition info: http://www.stedelijk.nl/oc2/page.asp?pageid=1808
introdution text also available at: http://www.mikro.in-berlin.de/ 


Deep Screen - Art in Digital Culture. An Introduction

Andreas Broeckmann

I. Preparations

The initial idea for this exhibition grew out of the Stedelijk  
Museum's wish to dedicate one of its periodical Municipal Acquisions  
Exhibitions to art that uses digital and electronic media. In our  
discussions last autumn we decided that it would be interesting to  
take as a selection criterium not the technical media in use, but to  
focus on the ways in which artists respond to the cultural and  
aesthetic changes afforded by digital technologies. Importantly, we  
wanted to open up the exhibition to artists who deal with these  
cultural changes, even though in their works they may not be using  
the most recent technical inventions.

A call for proposals was published early in the winter, inviting  
artists living and working in the Netherlands to submit artworks that  
reflect on the image as process, or event. The underlying idea was  
that contemporary images, whether digital or analogue, are neither  
static, nor fixed once and for all. They are characterised by  
generative processes and transformation over time: in digital  
environments, even still images are performed and experienced as  
events. Moreover, we ascertained that visuality is no longer a  
necessary condition of what constitutes an image: sound and touch are  
increasingly important in the new image realm.

In the advertisement, we attempted to offer an inclusive definition  
of this expanded field of the image as process and the image as  
event, a field which encompasses generative computer code as well as  
video screens, paintings that reflect on their condition in the  
digital era, as well as interactive and non-visual installations. We  
were looking for works that tell stories and that trace new routes of  
abstraction. Art projects that are shared and cast across networked  
and mobile devices. That manipulate our sense of present, past, and  
future. Works that are agents in the digital media ecology of images  
and that approach, reflect and construct reality.

Another, often decisive criterium that the jury applied, was that the  
selected works would actively reflect on digital culture, and at the  
same time imagine art beyond the digital.
As a result of this call we received, within only a few weeks,  
submissions from around 200 artists of quite different age groups and  
backgrounds, and with a wide range of artistic media in use, from  
painting and photography, through interactive and software-based  
installations, to typographic design and sound art. It is a matter of  
course that the jury had an almost impossible task to compare and  
select from such a variety of approaches.

What the jury was most interested in was artistic quality; while we  
were at times teased by cute ideas and clever applications of  
hardware and software technologies, we were really looking for  
artistic substance in the proposed works and in the oeuvre of the  
artist in general. What we had to keep in mind was also the logic of  
a renowned museum collection that, even if it is willing to take  
risks, expects durability in the items it acquires. Two questions  
thus became the basis for the discussions of the jury: does this work  
reflect, in an interesting and unique way, on the cultural and  
aesthetic condition of our time, so deeply influenced by digital  
technologies, and the social practices associated with them? and is  
this a strong work of art that we recommend for acquisition by the  
Stedelijk Museum of Amsterdam?

While the jury finally agreed about the artists that we selected for  
the exhibition, there were of course many discussions about these, as  
well as about artists who did not make it into the show that will run  
throughout the summer of 2008, as one of the last exhibitions in the  
Stedelijk's temporary exhibition space in the Post CS building. The  
jury decided to emphasise the thematic focus of the call, which meant  
that some strong works which did, however, not deal with the  
exhibition theme, had to be excluded. In cases of doubt, we tried to  
take a daring approach, selecting work that would challenge the  
museum and its audience to rethink their frames of reference.

II. Into the Deep Screen

William Gibson's cyberpunk novel 'Neuromancer' (first published in  
1984) famously begins like this: 'The sky above the port was the  
color of television, tuned to a dead channel.' This enigmatic image  
has fascinated many critical technology afficinados, conjuring up a  
dystopian post-medial world in which the spectacular mass medium of  
television would merely be a faint memory, a phenomenon as dull as a  
hazy sky. It suggests a TV set, placed in an awkward position,  
suspended from above, showering light and electronic noise onto the  
landscape. Buildings, roads, cars and people are reflecting the pixel  
snow, the boundary between the hissing screen, the glittering points  
of light, and the world below, blurred beyond recognition.

A second historical deep screen goes back another twenty years and  
presents not an expansive image of the physical world swallowed by  
media, but to the contrary, points to the very representational  
limitations and technical idiosyncracies of any medium. After  
abandoning music, the artist Nam June Paik discovered the conceptual  
potentials of electronic media. In 1963, he was the first artist to  
use a TV set in an art exhibition, and unlike others he was less  
interested in events shown on the screen, than in the fact that the  
technical and the social medium of television could actually be  
manipulated. One of the most direct interventions were Paik's  
experiments with the magnetic field in which the cathode ray of the  
TV tube is guided to draw the lines of light that make up the image,  
onto the screen surface. Magnet TV (1965) was an interactive setting  
in which the audience was invited to move a strong magnet around the  
exhibited TV set, twisting and turning the screen image. Paik's own  
favourite subjects for this playful 'demagnetisation' were, a little  
later, US president Richard Nixon, and the guru of the new media age,  
Marshall McLuhan, whose belief in the liberatory potential of  
television in the hands of artists encouraged Paik to test this on  
McLuhan's own talking head.

The 'deep screen' which this exhibition takes as its cue is thus not  
a new phenomenon. One could also trace it to the broken surfaces of  
Cézanne's late impressionist paintings, or to the Renaissance and,  
for instance, Hans Holbein's 1533 double portrait of The Ambassadors,  
in which a strange anamorphosis in the foreground, camouflaging a  
skull, elucidates both the material, painted surface, and the multi- 
dimensional space of representation that the painting opens up.

The 'deep screen' that the exhibition title points to, implies a  
transgression of the illuminated image surface; it is a dynamic,  
spatial and temporal field which connects the presence of the artwork  
to the process of perception and interaction. An hypothesis that the  
exhibition puts forward is that, while the deep screen has distinct  
art historical precursors, it is a phenomenon that has become more  
complex in the age of electronic and digital media. Like all good  
artworks, the individual pieces in the show of course do a lot more  
than illustrate a curatorial concept. However, as one of their  
aspects, and in order to offer a red thread for exploring the  
exhibition, the presented works probe 'screen depth' in relation to  
the construction and deconstruction of space, in relation to the  
screen as a space of action and interaction, and as a complex field  
of perception.

The fluidity with which we can today imagine virtual spaces as  
physical ones, and physical spaces as virtual ones, is determined by  
our experiences with digital image spaces which are, by their very  
nature, temporal, fluid, and endlessly modifiable. Digital imaging  
has not so much physically transformed the material world, but it has  
drastically changed the way in which we look and imagine the world  
around us. Here's an experiment: imagine a room in your home; think  
of the furniture and things that you have in that room; now imagine  
that you have a virtual model of this room before your eye and you  
can fly through this space while it is, at the same time being  
stretched so that you cannot reach the end, then contracting again to  
be rolled out onto a flat surface, the virtual camera eye being  
trapped somewhere in the middle of the plane. The claim is that  
anybody who has experienced 3D virtual spaces through goggles, in a  
projection, or on a computer screen, can easily follow that  
experiment and imagine the transformations of the imagined space.

Oscillating between space and image, the environments of David  
Jablonowski include three-dimensional, sculptural objects, two- 
dimensional images and graphic structures which are sometimes bent  
and curved into the third dimension, and they include one-dimensional  
points of colour, pixel objects which have a spatial extension only  
when viewed at a certain angle. Otherwise these pixels become part of  
an image space that we can walk through yet that we can also, before  
our computer-trained inner eye, collapse into a two-dimensional  

The reverse process can be observed in Erica van Loon's photographic  
installations which show flat images whose graphic structures have  
been composed in physical spaces. The size and form of the  
presenation defies the realism of the photographic medium and tease  
the observer to reconstruct the physical space which, in the artwork,  
is forced into flatness.

In Gabriel Lester's installation of landscape videos, Choreography,  
the camera person's foresighted eye is replaced by robot cameras.  
Their movements, each pan, each zoom, each turn, seem devoid of any  
romantic intention which would normally guide the human gaze in such  
an environment. The rhythm of the music that plays to the images is  
used as a functional trigger, rather than as an emotional  
augmentation of the mediated experience of nature. A similar  
frustration of expectations is relayed by Persijn Broersen and Margit  
Lukács' Hinterland #2 series. The artists derive these images from  
the mass media and clear them of any referential objects or scenes,  
leaving only the backdrop. Like an empty computer monitor, or a white  
sheet of paper, these empty pieces of scenery hold the potential for  
any event, and for any degree of mediated boredom.

One such scene is the Lost Paradise in Meiya Lin's video installation  
in which a postmodern Adam and Eve, lounging in the mellow, virtual  
set of a non-descript culture, devoid of guilt, responsibility, or  
identity. While the earlier large-scale drawings of Jasmijn Visser  
reference a similar iconography of comic strips and computer  
animations, her more recent works go beyond the diagrammatic and use  
the same visual language for the composition of dynamic, almost  
cinematographic tableaus in which the animation of space is being re- 

Luna Maurer's design strategies often include the active involvement  
of the visitor or user. In her Blue Fungus project for the Deep  
Screen exhibition, she turns the entire museum space into a potential  
image surface that the visitors can fill, structure, and thus  
appropriate, with an immense number of blue stickers. Here, the  
exhibition space becomes identical, and congruous, with the  
interactive screen of the designer.

Any standard computer with a graphical user interface teaches us  
that, whatever we see, can be manipulated, clicked on, cut and  
pasted, transformed, deleted. The extent of that manipulation will in  
part be dependent on the skills of the user, and in part on the  
degrees of freedom that the software in use allows - a realisation  
that is responsible for the association of open source software with  
the notion of liberty, and of the free software movement with a  
particular type of social liberation. We can see this effect of the  
image space turned into a space of interaction in Luna Maurer's  
project, which can also be read in relation to the multi-user virtual  
worlds, like Second Life, where users can design their personal  
avatars as well as the collectively visited virtual spaces. The  
(constructed) pictorial realism of such worlds, as well as the  
'natural' behaviour of the avatars populating them, is put to the  
test by the modified Quake levels which JODI are offering in their  
Untitled Game hall. The spatial coordinates, as well as the effects  
of our interaction seem largely out of control, even though the event  
logic of the games still appears to be in tact. In the same way as  
Gabriel Lester undermines any romantic notion of landscape, JODI  
undermine the naďve assumption that virtual worlds are made of  
anything but highly volatile digital code.

And while JODI seem to mock the seriousness of 1960s minimalism, the  
software-based, generative drawing machines by Jochem van der Spek  
mimic the action painters of the 1950s and replace their spectacular  
gestural theatre by an independent, rule-based yet lucid virtual  
mechanism. Equally independent is the process that leads to the  
detailed little sculptures of Erwin Driessens and Maria Verstappen.  
The artists define certain rules for the mathematical calculations  
which simulate a form of natural selection to arrive at three- 
dimensional, structurally open and strong topological objects. The  
sculptures, consecutively realised with a 3D-printer, are based on an  
almost autonomous, machinic design process, almost devoid of  
aesthetic considerations.

Artworks like these tend to beg the question: who is in control?  
Interactive art can dramatise that question and turn it into an  
aesthetically powerful proposition, like in the rotating sculpture  
Spatial Sounds by Marnix de Nijs and Edwin van der Heide which has  
the independent behaviour of an angry, menacing animal. This is an  
artwork that is neither a passive or benign mechanism, nor one that  
will accept submission under a self-assured observer. The screen here  
becomes a tense battlefield in which the human actor must admit  
defeat. - A defeat that has already happened in Remco Scha and Arthur  
Elsenaar's Face Shift which is predicated on the idea that an  
intelligent machine has adopted the human face as an interface, a  
screen for expressing the its complex emotions.

If all of this was experienced in the waking state, Nathaniel Mellors  
takes us into an uneasy dream world where the loaded relationship  
between human and machine is played out as an absurd and psychotic  
piece of performance. As the narrative unfolds, it becomes more and  
more difficult to decide whether this nightmare has sprung from the  
mind of a human, or from that of a machinic Time Surgeon.

In its exploration of the way in which digital media have transformed  
mediated perception, the exhibition also asks whether, in the course  
of that transformation, the domain of art has been shifted, or  
whether that domain might in fact be continuous with earlier or non- 
digital artistic practices. An interesting example upon which this  
question can be pondered are the painting and video works by Roland  
Schimmel which present seeing as a dynamic process. The activation of  
images and after-images on the retinal screen of the human eye is  
done no less effectively by the still image of the painting than by  
the moving image of the video. In contrast, Geert Mul's SN.X4 offers  
an opportunity to look into the parallel 'retinal' effects in the  
'eye' of the video apparatus. The same scene, shown in four different  
ways by careful manipulation of the optical and digital production  
technologies used, hints at the metaphorical 'depth' of the systems  
that bring forth these dynamic images.

The most fundamental question as to what constitutes a 'screen' is  
posed by Gert-Jan Prins' Make Before Break: the Cavity version, a  
visually neutral space of pure, non-representational sound that is,  
however, rich in associations and acoustic structures. The continuum  
between the sound sources, the spatial distribution of the sound  
waves, the human ears and the listening minds form the perceptual  
field in which the sonic artwork takes shape, and makes sense. Mark  
Bain, in a different, yet equally radical gesture, turns the inside  
of our bodies, especially our skeleton, into the resonant surface on  
which his work, StartEndTime, is presented. The event of the  
September 11th attack on the World Trade Center in New York,  
documented as seismographic waves, has been transformed into an event  
that reverberates in the medium of our body.

Like Bain's installation, a number of the works in this exhibition  
are, even though they may have been produced with the help of a  
computer, not dependent on digital technology for their presentation.  
Nevertheless, they mark significant aspects of a contemporary art  
practice that tries to come to terms with the aesthetic and cultural  
conditions of a time in which digital techniques and apparatuses have  
become a quasi natural part of the environment we inhabit. Therefore,  
even the almost archaic techniques, layered on top of each other in  
Pierre Bastien's installation Somewhere in the Dark, characterise a  
contemporary media ecology in which light, shadows, the human voice  
(here that of Robert Wyatt) and acoustic music continue to be crucial  
means of artistic expression.

III. Postscript on Media Art

The present exhibition makes no particular commitment to the display  
of digital technologies or of current trends in techno-culture. This  
is a decision that might be looked at critically by a media art scene  
that defines itself in contrast to the contemporary art field. The  
underlying potential for disagreement emerges from different  
evaluations of the cultural field characterised by interests in art,  
technology, internet culture, design, electronic music, open source  
software, game culture, and many related issues. This field, which we  
can call digital culture, has over the last four or so decades been  
growing from a marginal subculture to a diverse and fractured stratum  
that cuts right across contemporary society. As the first generation  
grows up that has a more intimate relation with the personal computer  
than with television, it will become less and less relevant to even  
distinguish between digital culture and contemporary culture in  
general. This is also why, for artists like Jablonowski, J. Visser,  
Broersen & Lukács, Maurer, and others in this show, the distinction  
between digital and analogue artistic media no longer seems relevant,  
and why for them there is no ideological obligation to submit to the  
aesthetic limitations of the epoch-making technologies. For an  
earlier generation of artists, it was a decisive step to 'go  
digital', or not. Entire artistic careers were ruined by the stigma  
of doing 'art with a plug'. (Others were made by the exclusivity  
which that stigma offered in certain circles.)

It has been one of the grave misconceptions of 'new media art' to  
assume that the new technologies would break with the paradigms of  
representation, perception and cognition to an extent that the  
effects of that break could exclusively be articulated by means of  
these very technologies. However, as this misconception withers, only  
the label Media Art - in the sense of 'art based on electronic or  
digital media' - will be a thing of the past; a past when it was also  
aesthetically decisive when one chose for the artistic programme  
determined by those 'technologies formerly known as new media'. In  
the same way as contemporary artists are free to use drawing and  
painting, photography and film, video and sculpture, they are also no  
longer risking their art market career if they develop an interactive  
3D-environment, a generative video projection, or a sound  
installation. This will mean, on the one hand, that part of what has  
been produced as Media Art in the past, will at some point be re- 
evaluated as important pre-cursors to later contemporary art  
developments - or as idiosyncratic variations of other possibilities  
that were not followed up on. On the other hand, the described  
liberation of the artistic media will require a further broadening of  
art school teaching and art funding, in which the high-ceiling  
studios for painters and sculptors are consistently matched by well- 
equipped studios for digitally based art production in image, sound,  
space, and movement. Artists must have a choice, and they ought to be  
as critically aware of the politics, the historical background, and  
the aesthetic potentials and limitations of software, as of oil and  
acryllic paint, HD video, or bronze.

The overall submissions to our call, and hopefully also the  
exhibition itself, are testimony to the fact that artists in the  
Netherlands are doing quite well in terms of the liberation of  
artistic media. It is now time for the museums, for public and  
private collectors to acknowledge a change in the arts that has been  
going on for decades and that is a challenge for gallerists, art  
historians and conservation experts, much more than for the artists  
themselves. In that respect, the strategic ambition of Deep Screen is  
to show how much can be gained for the appreciation of contemporary  
art from such a broadening of the horizon.

Further reading

Marie-Luise Angerer: Vom Begehren nach dem Affekt. Zürich: Diaphanes,  
Departement Kunst & Medien (eds.): Media Arts Zurich. 13 Positions.  
Zürich: Scheidegger & Spiess, 2008
Matthew Fuller: Media Ecologies: Materialist Energies in Art and  
Technoculture. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2005
Max Imdahl: Farbe. Kunsttheoretische Reflexionen in Frankreich.  
München: Fink, 1987
Maurizio Lazzarato: Videophilosophie. Zeitwahrnehmung im  
Postfordismus. Berlin: b_books, 2002
Arjen Mulder, Maaike Post: Boek voor de elektronische kunst.  
Amsterdam: De Balie / V2_: 2000
Frieder Nake: "Vilém Flusser und Max Bense, des Pixels angesichtig  
werdend. Eine Überlegung am Rande der Computergrafik." In: Gottfried  
Jäger (ed.): Fotografie denken. Über Vilém Flussers Philosophie der  
Medienmoderne.  Bielefeld: Kerber 2001, p.169-182
Hans Ulrich Reck: The Myth of Media Art. The Aesthetics of the Techno/ 
Imaginary and an Art Theory of Virtual Realities. Weimar: VDG, 2007
Martin Seel: Ästhetik des Erscheinens. Frankfurt/M.: Suhrkamp, 2003
Yvonne Spielmann, Gundolf Winter (eds.): Bild - Medium - Kunst.  
München: Fink, 1999
Peter Weibel: Gamma und Amplitude. Medien- und kunsttheoretische  
Schriften. Berlin: Philo, 2004

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