Technology and art (1999)

Glenn Harper
artdesigncafé - art | 10 September 2011
This paper was previously presented at the Gibbes Museum of Art, Charleston, South Carolina, USA in February 1999.

Art Papers magazine, while I was the editor, did an interview with a puppeteer who had taught puppetry for years, to people from school age to retirement age. He said that he first assigns the class to make a single puppet, from whatever material is at hand, and the results are widely diverse in what the puppets are made of and what they can do. But he said that when he has the class make a second puppet, whether the student is 14 or 84, the results are always the same: first the two puppets fight, and second, they have sex. Then they can go on to perform the eerie magic of puppets in a broader range of action. The fascination with technology today is, I think, related to the fascination that puppets have for us. A thing is acting like us. A puppet is a surrogate or a cyborg that can act out for us in a way we can’t do in our everyday lives— and their uncanny nature can permit us to see through their actions to the truth of our own.

And as with puppets, technology gave us first violence, from computer games to Mark Pauline’s Survival Research Laboratories, and then sex, from virtual sex to Web porn, to Laura Kikauka’s copulating robots or the Center for Metahuman Exploration’s "Paradise" project, which I’ll talk more about in a minute. What we can expect beyond violence and sex can be glimpsed across a broad range of what is called "new media": robots, video installation and projection,, computer-aided design and production of both two-dimensional, virtual objects and environments and three-dimensional, tangible objects— and also a range of community-interaction projects that, although they may depend on non-technological means (including puppets in some cases), are often lumped in with new media and do often use technological means.

But is "new technology" really something new rather than just new packaging and marketing, as Randal Walser argues in an article, "Elements of a Cyberspace Playhouse". [1] Packaging and marketing are at the very least a substantial part of technological advance, as anyone knows who has ever tried to throw away the MSN icon on their Windows desktop. The two larger arguments that Nancy Paterson is making are also interesting, especially in the light of the claims for a difference in embodiment as well as gender and race in a technological realm: "Whatever our class, race or gender, we all take our bodies with us as we approach the millennium."[2] Our interface with technology IS the body— virtual reality technology depends on the body, on the sense apparatus, stereo vision and hearing, and so forth— virtual reality only works by fooling the body, not eliminating it. And our interface with technology is imperfect. I recently got a notice from my bank that they are now offering an internet service: "Pay all your bills on-line, without ever leaving your desk. To sign up, drop by one of our branches to pick up an application."

In fact, what we are calling new media resembles very closely the individual and collaborative work of the 1950s and ’60s by Jean Tinguely and EAT.

To suggest what is new or not new about new technology, I want to offer a few quotations or comments from other people. First, from "Mr. Cogito on Magic" by Zbigniew Herbert:

fortunes grow out of this
branches of industry
branches of crime

industrious ships sail to bring new spices

engineers of visual debauchery
toil without rest

breathless alchemists of hallucination
new thrills
new colors
new moans

and an art is born
of aggressive epilepsy [3]

It’s interesting to note that at least two artists, Simon Penny and Jennifer Hall, have created high-tech machines that simulate epileptic seizures. But Herbert’s poem is from a collection published in Polish in 1974. And Herbert’s metaphors draw on the technological advances of earlier eras, from the spice trade and world exploration to more recent hallucinatory change. We have to remember that our current rush to the millennium is within and not beyond history. And that history is leading us as artists or an art audience not toward participation, but toward mass manipulation. Robert Morgan recently pointed out, "One cannot presume that a public space is also a social one. (Americans are too agitated, too hyper-mediated by electronics to exist as a real social group…)" [4]

Walter Benjamin pointed out that technology is in itself a privatizing force. From public festivals or drama or a storyteller we move to smaller and smaller movie theaters, VCR movies, and finally to the one-person-at-a-time experience of the virtual reality mask and glove. The Irish fiddle player John Doherty once offered to allow a musicologist to make a recording of his music, with the condition that the tape not be copied or published or released as an album. Why? Because for Doherty, music was a social relation, a face-to-face encounter. Years later, the recording was released as a CD, and Doherty is dead, so the social relation is lost but technology has preserved something of it for private consumption.

What artists are or are not doing to address the loss of a "public" (in the larger sense and in the sense of a public for art) can be seen in the kinds of work being done in new media, across the spectrum I mentioned earlier, from robotics to community projects. I originally thought I would not show any projections of artists’ work, because a large percentage of the projects being done in new media don’t actually give you very much to look at. But I decided to show some slides (very low-tech), to illustrate the range of work.

Many artists, like Alan Rath (who has been working with new technologies for a number of years and whose influences go back to EAT among others, demonstate simultaneously a fascination with new media and a nostalgia for old technologies. These works are elaborate visual puns that mix in an uncanny manner video bodies and old-fashioned tools and technologies. Other artists working in this area include Arthur Ganson, who tends to emphasize technological nostalgia in his Tinguely-esque machines, and the very eerie and puppet-like projections of Tony Oursler.

Marshall McLuhan in the 1960s said that human beings are the reproductive organs of technology (it’s only through us that technology advances or regenerates). [5] The Center for Metahuman Exploration’s "Paradise" project for the ISEA 97 conference turns the insight inside-out. The installation consists of two aluminum isolation booths and a cylindrical chamber connectied by video and telephone cabling. Each isolation booth contains the interface, a television and a telephone. The ringing telephone beckons exhibit patrons to enter the booth. After answering the telephone, participants will receive brief introduction and instructions. The cylindrical aluminum chamber contains the synthetic garden paradise that can only be experienced through telepresence: participants may direct the naked couple in the chamber to touch the grasses, the flowers, and each other:

“The objective of telepresence is to experience a remote location without being there, often through the use of telerobotics and communications technologies. Though suitable for remote labor, inspection and exploration, such remote experiences often lack sensory input and emotional content to make them believable as ’real’ experience. To provide adequate sensory input is primarily a technical challenge, however, to provide emotional content requires the projection of the feelings of the observer to connect with objects and beings at the remote site. This emotional connection may then augment sensory input provided by purely technical means. An experience of remote emotional connection requires an avatar through which a remote user may project and receive emotional content from the remote site. This avatar must afford control to the remote user, yet personify the user in order to convey feelings of empathy. Ideally this empathetic avatar would be part human, to convey emotion, and part machine, to respond to user control. This mechanically augmented human is the Cyborg Surrogate Self.

By pressing buttons on a telephone, you may caress, via a proxy arm that extends in first-person pespective into the video space, the naked body in view. The remote arm is robotically connected to your keypad, and also contains a video camera. The gender of the arm and the displayed body are arbitrarily related to the sex of the phone-booth participant.” [6]

A few other works related to ISEA 98 can illustrate briefly some of the other tendencies of new media art.

Luke Jerram constructed a sculpture, Retinal Memory Volume (1997), places— as unusual as it sounds— onto the viewer’s optical nerve. In a dark room, you are exposed to flashes of light that illuminate first the chair in which you are to sit and a vacant space to one side. By means of the retained retinal image, you can "place" the empty chair (in which you are actually now sitting) into the space of the "real" room.

Kristin Lucas, in Drag and drop (1999) combines notions of "compression" and interaction. In a very small room, the viewer is projected into an illusory space along with images of the artist as a young girl and a grown woman, and the viewer can manipulate the environment by gradually learning how the pressure sensitive floor controls the cameras and the projections.

Nigel Helyer brought harbor sounds back to a gentrifying harbor area, through buoys and radio broadcasts— to the dismay of the residents who were disturbed by the recurrence of the harbor’s earlier function as it intruded on their now-quiet waterside enclave.

Neila Justo combines technological materials torn from their intended uses in a reminder of the earliest computers, used in weaving machines. The work is a weaving and sound installation (the sound was very quiet, requiring the audience to lean over very close to the work). Works by Keith Piper and the team of Imanol Atorrasagasti and Yan Duyvendak illustrate a more formal exploration of video installation and virtual space.

A mixing of media can be seen in the work Sue Williamson created an installation in the visiting area of a former prison on Robben Island in South Africa, exploring institutional frameworks of incarceration and surveillance with broad implications beyond the history of her own country. And Guillermo Gómez-Peña and Roberto Sifuentes created an installation that combined languages, cultures, materials, and the intersection of the public and the private, including the opportunity for anonymous viewers to post confessions over the internet that could be included in the installation.

During the technological boom of the middle of the 20th century, Martin Heidegger said that we are only engulfed by technology if we regard it as something neutral, [7] and Jacques Ellul warned that the logic of technology is that technical problems have only technical solutions, removing the public as well as any ethical or political concerns from the loop. [8] At the end of the century, artists have a potential role, as Nancy Paterson points out, in contradicting the seeming transparency and inevitability of technology: "We can only buy so much technological confidence. The rest must come from art and artists…who critically envision a creative future in which we will all take part." [9] Can new media art projects, like puppets, capitalize on their uncanny character to defamiliarize (Viktor Shklovsky’s early 20th-century term for what effective art does) the technological everyday world with its aura of inevitability and its isolating, disempowering effects— can technological art defamiliarize us or foreground the technological environment, make it strange so that we can see what is going on rather than becoming fascinated by the shining surface, like deer in the headlights. Some artists are using the Internet like ’zines and other alternative networks, to circumvent the hierarchies of art and society. I recently received a "Net Project" from Slovenia— a nice little "artists’ book" that actually is a promotional flyer for their high-tech art site, sponsored by the Soros Foundation. The artists of Slovenia have been at the forefront of using new technologies (along with humor, a keen sense of history, and a willingness to provoke) in getting their art to new audiences. [10] Martha Wilson, the director of Franklin Furnace, moved her institution entirely onto the World Wide Web, abandoning her non-electronic exhibition space. She recently reported that her audience for a performance piece on the Web was in the hundreds (not the thousands or millions, as the hype suggests)— but since a performance in the Franklin Furnace building would have had an audience of twenty people on folding chairs, she counts the change as progress. [11]

It’s worth quoting the end of Zbigniew Herbert’s poem:

but this is still a vision
of a better future

for the time being
as never before [12]

[1] Randal Walser. "Elements of a Cyberspace Playhouse" in Sandra K. Helsel and Judith Paris Roth (Ed.), Virtual Reality: Theory, Practice and Promise. (Westport, CT, USA: Meckler, 1991, p. 53). (This is a typical example of web "research"; I got the quote from Walser, by the way, not from the original text but from an article by new media artist Nancy Paterson in an online magazine named Massage, which republished it from the Canadian magazine Fuse.

[2] Massage, #2.

[3] Zbigniew Herbert. (1993). Mr. Cogito, tr. John Carpenter and Bogdana Carpenter. (New York, Ecco) (original 1974).

[4] Robert Morgan. (15 January 1999). “The Heroine-ism of Audrey Flack”. Review, (a low-tech, photocopied art magazine distributed in New York City), p. 6.

[5] Marshall McLuhan. (1994). Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press), p. 46.

[6] Peter Coppin, writing as The Center for Metahuman Exploration, The Wire Through Which Happiness Flows. (adapted from Cyborg Surrogate Self), Cultronix, Geoffrey Sauer and Alice Crawford, vol. 5. See also Cultronix, Geoffrey Sauer and Alice Crawford, Vol. 5.

[7] Martin Heidegger. (1977). The question concerning technology and other essays, tr. W. Lovitt. (New York: Harper & Row), pp. 3-35.

[8] Jacques Ellul. (1997). Sources and trajectories: Eight early articles that set the stage, tr. Marva J. Dawn. (New York: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing), p. 33.

[9] Massage, #2

[10] Internet Portfolio, SCCA-Ljubljana (

[11] Conversation with Martha Wilson, 1998.

[12] Zbigniew Herbert. (1993). Mr. Cogito, tr. John Carpenter and Bogdana Carpenter. (New York, Ecco) (original 1974).