Deep Screen - Art in Digital Culture. An Introduction

Andreas Broeckmann*

b #20

The exhibition 'Deep Screen - Art in Digital Culture' at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam opened in the end of May and will run until 30 September 2008; below is Andreas Broeckmann introductory text to the exhibtion, a contribute to the ongoing debate on art and media...

Geert Mul, SNX4, 2008

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 composition.

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-invented.

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 naïve 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, 2007

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


* Art historian, theoretician and curator who lives and works in Berlin. He is since 2005 one of the artistic directors of TESLA – Laboratory for Arts and Media in Berlin. He was also the artistic director of Transmediale – Festival for art and digital culture berlin (2000-2007), and worked as a project man­ager at V2_Organisation Rotterdam, Institute for the Unstable Media (1995-2000). He co-maintains the Spectre mailing list and is a member of the Berlin-based media association Mikro. In 2007 he is co-chairing the Berlin conference Re:place 2007 on the histories of art, media, science and technology.