A month or so ago I was asked by the Dean of my Department at Yonsei (Graduate School of Communications and Arts) to give a lecture at another University here in Seoul, Chung-Ang, where an “international” symposium on Digital Media and Visuals was being given. I said OK, never mind not being fond of these academic meetings which usually consist of deadly dull talks in their peculiar language, followed by food and drink. I got an email from the organizer, which said April 14 was the date of the symposium, and I plotted my time accordingly. They asked if their title, “The new trend: convergence of digital media and art”, would be alright. I asked for a little change, which I suppose should have warned them of my view: “Digital Media and Art: A Convergence?” They replied it was fine, and I began to write my thoughts, check about projection capacities, and do some internet searching for appropriate imagery. Then last week my friend Hyun-suk, dropped me a casual note about the symposium, indicating he’d be there as a questioner, and saying it was on March 14, just a handful of days away. Double checking the original email it did say April, but a note to the organizer got an apology for the slip. And I had to slip into high gear and set aside other things to ready everything, which in fact I failed to do – just not enough time to gather and organize the visual stuff. Which as it turned out was irrelevant since the projection system wouldn’t have been able to handle it, nor were they able to show the work I wanted passively in the background during my talk. As I commented to Hyun-suk, “The function of technology is to malfunction, and almost all departments who specialize in communication simply can’t.”
The meeting itself was as anticipated: a nice lecture room, a cluster of academics, a nicely printed catalog, a gaggle of, students doubtless forced to attend, an introductory address by a university vice president, and then a series of droning talks, several via Power Point, citing statistics in the increasing use of bandwidth for video, etc. etc. etc. It was all done in Korean, properly so, so my role was to sit dutifully imagining what they might be saying. Hyun-suk was beside me so I inquired once in a while, the response usually being a mordant, “um, I don’t see what their point is….” Which is typical of academic speak which hides nothing behind an elaborate facade of stats, big words, theoretical newly minted lingo, and usually comes down on no side. Then a break, during which half the captive audience fled. Resumed, and a few more talks, with me left as clean-up batter. Needless to say, they weren’t really prepared for my little talk which was followed with some questions and comments from the other participants. One woman stammered about a few minutes and basically said she wasn’t competent to talk about my supposed subject (life and death); the moderator misinterpreted what I’d said and turned it on its head; Hyun-suk likewise seemed to miss my point that art was no longer the realm of self-named artists, but is instead the accidental by-product of science, as science is our religion. So we finished, and went off to a duck dinner, done Korean style. Here’s the talk:
“Digital Media and Art: A Convergence?”
We are long past the time when we might say “digital” is a buzzword – to say something new and exciting by virtue of being new. Things digital are no longer new – they are instead well worn, everyday, utterly familiar, whether one is aware of it or not. For decades now any flight you took was flown by a computer; a telephone call was shunted by a digital switcher; the intricate infrastructure of water, electricity, traffic flow – the vast apparatus of a city such as Seoul is functionally under digital control and has been for quite some time.
On a more mundane level here in Seoul – on the metro, walking down the street, or driving, one sees almost everyone busy talking and texting on their cell phones, following a GPS map, watching a film or playing a video game on some small digital device. In the offices secretaries and designers and planning officials can be seen buried in their digitally-based work, and even in the market of Kwang-Jang amidst the clutter of things sold there, the shop owner will instantly whip out a digital calculator to show you the price. Even though our lives are run by it, like the video-game addicts of Seoul’s PC parlors, we hardly notice it.
Digital information is the fluid of our times, like air, a seemingly invisible but necessary component of our lives, taken so much for granted that we hardly notice how deeply enmeshed it is within us and how deeply entangled we are within it. It is so ordinary, so everyday, that like other such things – water, air, food, energy – we scarcely give it a thought or a moment’s reflection until it malfunctions and the computer crashes or the power goes out, or we turn on the faucet and nothing happens. This is the price we pay for living in a highly complex infra-structured world – most people know and understand almost nothing of the essentials which make this life possible.
So briefly, let’s take a moment to look at what “digital” really means.
The origins of the word comes from the Latin for “fingers,” each finger being a digit. Our usage in mathematics derives from this – each digit in a number is “a finger.” Clearly this derives from counting on our fingers – each finger representing “1” something.
In our current usage, which broadly covers all computer-based computational work, digital means a particular and very restricted manner of using numbers: in this context there are only two digits: ZERO and ONE. Or ON and OFF.
At first glance one might think this is a very limited system, and would naturally lead to a very limited capacity for any kind of communication, and hence be rather useless. And, lacking other elements this would be more or less the case – were it not for the advances in electronics, the development of transistors, silicon chips and what are now the standard components of computers, the language would be far too cumbersome to be of any but the most limited use. Abacuses were around for a very long time but seldom strayed out of simple accounting.
The virtue of this very simple system is that in its binary YES/NO, ZERO/ONE, ON/OFF structure: it is utterly rigid, and hence replicable. Every YES or NO when copied, will be exactly as the original. There is no, “well, maybe” or “approximately this.” YES is always YES and NO is always NO. It is a self-replicable language which – barring corruption – is always accurate. In itself this virtue might seem rather meaningless. However, when this binary logic is expanded with sophisticated logarithms, and when some tool is able to rapidly calculate a vast number of ZEROS and ONES, then this rigid language takes on an extraordinary plasticity and the same machine, using the same ZERO/ONE alphabet, but programmed with differing logarithms, can be used to make engineering calculations about physical stresses, to determine locations, it can interpret and reproduce sounds or invent new ones, replicate 1000 type-faces, make amazing graphics, in 3-D, in motion, or can calculate the probable (as accurately as the information it is given) behavior of a clump of refined uranium and hence what a theoretical hydrogen bomb would do.
Thus, from this drastic simplicity of but 2 numbers, with the proper tools – silicon transistors operating at near the speed of light, and the proper software – to say all those logarithms which harness this binary language, we can arrive at a virtual universe of possibilities. One might say that as in the theorized BIG BANG of our origins – which suggests that our entire universe erupted from an inequilibrium in an infinitesimally small packet of pure energy and exploded into what is our still expanding reality, to say that from virtually nothing has come our everything – that the confluence of both the intellectual mathematics and the physical hardware to manipulate a simple binary alphabet of YES and NO, resulted in a similar kind of exponential computational expansion, in effect opening up a virtual universe of new possibilities.
As a filmmaker of long experience, I can in a very direct and material manner describe what this shift from various analogue systems – which includes film, video prior to its digital format, and of course sound recording – to digital formats has meant on a simple down-to-earth level. I began making films – 16mm at first and then 35mm – in 1963 and carried on in film until 1996. I was somewhat famed for making films for the lowest of costs, but films which were artistically, but as well technically prized. I made 15 feature length films from 1972 to 1995, and was considered very prolific. But I knew that in that period on average I spent 2 months of a year working on film, and the rest finding the money to work.
In 1996, rather by accident a new DV camera, provided by SONY, landed in my hands. DV had just come on the market and I had read a small bit about this new video media, and had been intrigued. 30 seconds with this camera in my hands, I told myself “I am never going to work in film again.” And I haven’t.
I saw that its imagery was much richer than analog video, and even on the computer editing systems 12 years ago, it was more manipulable than analog video, and far more so than film. I was sold. Since 1996 I’ve made some 15 feature length works in DV, many shorts, and a handful of multi-screen long installation works. I am editing with my wife Marcella on 3 other features. These range from narrative works to utterly abstract ones. They are all rich visually, and many contain things which simply are not possible in film. I work constantly at my proper work and it costs almost nothing.
To summarize then, what the shift to digital did for me as an artist, was to open up aesthetic possibilities which were simply non-existent or else financially unreachable for me, at the same time it allowed me to stop talking about money to the kinds of business people who really have no interest in what I do. Digital Video both expanded my aesthetic palette by a vast range, and liberated me to concentrate on my work instead of on chasing money. A similar story could certainly be told of many others, in varying fields, where low-cost computers, and a wide variety of software opened up avenues which previously were too costly, or simply did not exist.
And now we arrive at the “hard part.” We’re here to talk about Digital Media and its convergence with Art. Well – whatever some academics and many young people think – art is the hard part. The mechanics and mental organizing of digital systems is the easy part.
So let me begin with a quote from Andrei Tarkovsky, the Russian filmmaker who died at the age of 52 in 1986, having made what are certainly some of the best films ever made.
“The allotted function of art is not, as is often assumed, to put across ideas, to propagate thoughts, to serve as example. The aim of art is to prepare a person for death, to plough and harrow his soul, rendering it capable of turning to good.” – Andrei Tarkovsky
So said Andrei Tarkovsky, and it is a definition with which I fully agree.
In these days the word “art” is debased, little more than a label used for marketing. Most so-called “art” is not really art, but is its opposite – trivial entertainment, distraction, amusement, a diversion, but carefully “branded” as “art” and thus given the wrapping of seriousness. Art is in our times a very big business – as we can see from the prices of given pieces of so-called art, or as shown in the eruption of endless museums, usually architectural show-off pieces by famed names (more branding), filled with largely the same items, whether in Tokyo, Seoul, New York or Berlin or Paris or Madrid or Abu Dabai. And likewise the same shops selling postcards and books, or fashion with art pictures on them, or in the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, now grown gargantuan, one can buy chairs or almost anything, while visiting what is now more of a vast taste-making shopping mall than a museum – a place in which what real art resides there is diminished and overwhelmed by the shallow buzz of humanity going quickly by, in a scurry to “see everything”. From the looks of it, art these days is very popular, as a weekend walk in Insadong suggests. It’s very fashionable to be fashionably artsy.
Naturally in the past years much of the alleged art is electronic – lights, technical devices and robots, video installations. As with most things these days, behind the flashing lights and movements are computers. And all around us are things masquerading as art – and in some circles, academic and otherwise, these are examined and studied as if they were art.
So in this whirlwind I ask us to step back, very far back, and examine just what art is, and how it comes about.
From the evidence we have, the earliest known art – to say the cave paintings to be found across the globe, dated from 40,000 years ago on: images of animals, of humans, some highly sexualized. While we don’t and can’t really know what these meant to their makers, we can surmise that these images had meanings other than simple aesthetics, that they were meant to be more than just to be pretty or interesting. We can surmise that an animal drawn or painted was a votive image, intended to prompt the real thing, that is to bring food, the sustenance of life. Similarly fertility images of sexualized women and men were meant to bring forth more life. And then there is the material of death: of carefully prepared bodies sent to the imagined next world with things thought necessary – a bowl, a tool, a piece of symbolic jewelry.
For tens of thousands of years this was the function of art – to amplify life, and to lay the groundwork for the acceptance of death. We can see this across the globe, in consistent but wonderfully varying forms. From the very outset the purpose of these images was to confront the elemental basics of life: reproduction, sustenance, and death. Doubtless these early images served in some manner for the function of some kind of religion, and in the development of various societies, the structures of religion became deeply and directly entwined with the function of art. Across continents, for millennia, art was in the direct service of religion (which was often also the basis of societal political organization.) Art at its source and roots was always sacred – it was about the meaning of life and death.
When we survey, historically, the arts of all cultures, it is only late in the story of the development of culture that art shifts from its essentially religious function, towards directly servicing wealth and power: as in the portraits which emerged in the European renaissance, and which can be found of rulers here in Korea, in China, India and elsewhere. Where rulers were effectually deemed gods – as in Egypt, Rome and elsewhere – then portraiture served the double function of asserting both religious and earthly power, thus mixing the profane and sacred.
But, aside from its externalized content – the celebration of the sacred – what makes art potent is something far more subtle and difficult: real art is always attentive to the means of its own making. Which is to say that whatever its material basis – paint, stone, light, wood, time – art is always attentive to its own being, its own substance. What makes art is not only the serious subject which it engages, but also the respect and seriousness with which the artist approaches the material by which the art is made. Good art is inherently self-reflective, and attends with profound seriousness to its own materials, whatever they are. On one level one might call this “craft” but in fact it is something far deeper, even itself “religious” and sacred: that the artist finds the proper means to express the sacred through the material itself. A real painter who is an artist uses paint as itself, in some manner intrinsically expressive of this paint itself. A real sculptor or dancer or musician or architect deploys the material of their art in a manner which respects the essential material being worked. It is the union of a substantive content which in some manner addresses the most fundamental elements of life, with an innate sensibility for the materials of the art which arrives at the sublime, where art transcends and in a manner becomes expressive of the sacred. Art, itself, is not sacred, or “the sacred,” but it can in some manner help lead one to a sense of sacredness. And that is its function.
I quote now an artist whom I greatly admire and most of whose work I think fulfills his intentions, James Turrell:
People talk about spiritual in art, and I think that’s been the territory of artists all along. You know, if you go into the great cathedrals made by architects and through the light of artisans, you have created a sense of awe that often is greater than what people feel when they read, or any sort of rhetoric by the priesthood. This is something that can be very powerful in a visual sense. And so the artists have always been involved in this; this is not something new. … But I also want to say that the senses and gratification through the senses, while it can direct you toward the spiritual, is also something that will hold you from it fully. That’s the limit of art, and so I don’t think that art is terribly spiritual, but it’s something that can be along that way, be a gesture toward that.
So the question raised here at the outset – is there or can there be a convergence of digital media and Art? Or in my case I must ask, in this sense of “art” – as a serious address to the matter of life and death, of the “sacred” – is there such a convergence – has it happened, will it happen?
To me, the answer is obvious. Yes, it will happen, and perhaps it already has, though frankly if so, I haven’t yet seen much which I think can qualify, and I have seen much digital work which certainly cannot so qualify.
It will or has happened because there is nothing mystical about digital technique as a media. It is perhaps a far more flexible media, it is inherently directly replicable, and in economic terms it is now a very inexpensive media, and these things confer both virtues and flaws, but it is like any other media when new.
Like all new media when they arrive, there is the tendency for artists to use them to copy whatever is or was fashionable at the time when they emerged. For example a look at early photography finds photographic images staged to look like the various painting styles of the times – Pre-Raphaelite romantic imagery, and early impressionism. The genuinely artful early photography was made not by self-perceived artists, but by documentarians.
Also, new media usually at the outset is used more by technicians who develop the technique, rather than real artists who come later and transform this technique into an art. For example if you examine early computer generated digital “art” what you find is basically pin-up art – sexy girls with fantastic tits and ass which move seductively at the flick of a joy-stick. Laura Croft and all her companions. This is not art, of course, though you will find academics who study it and assert it is a kind of art. And then we find emulations of single point perspective, except that we can move through it 3-dimensionally. Such “art” harkens back to Masaccio’s Trinity of 1462, or Piero della Francesca’s Ideal City. For the most part computer art – even as seen in a famed, supposed-video artist, Bill Viola – remains mired in the Renaissance, unable to leave go of the past and place itself firmly in the present and in the actual substance of digital media and its capacities.
Perhaps there is an explanation for this. Artists today remain largely attached to the bohemian concept of art as the function of the alienated loner, and for the most part society encourages this. Art is in these days a business, a matter of marketing, of selling styles, replacing them with new ones as quickly as possible. The substance of art is now, as in almost other realms of life, simply money, of business. That art which is acknowledged is that which makes money and celebrates the making of money, and the rest is swept away. In order to hide this brutal reality we have a kind of kabuki theater in which firm roles are given for each player, be they on or off stage, be they as producer or spectator. The illusion is made that “art” and its corresponding culture is alive, while in fact art is dead but we are loath to admit it, so we carry on with a charade. Young artists pretend to be bohemians. It is dead because our culture has for all practical purposes completely lost touch with the essence of what art is about. We do not, as a culture, care to think about death, or life. We would rather bury ourselves in trivial games and cell phones and empty socializing, all the better to flee from the heavy questions which life poses for us. We buy health and life insurance to ward off such thoughts. This is reflected in the video games which thousands of people are playing right now in this city in which there are myriad virtual killings but no consideration at all of death; it is reflected in the television which most people watch; it is reflected in the frantic cycle of consumption which is leading us over a cliff, but which we prefer not to notice. In such a context art is for all practical purposes impossible, for art must arise from within a culture. A culture which is in flight from all that which animates genuine art, from a serious contemplation of life and its ending, can hardly be expected to actually produce art.
Today, even if people assert they are Christian or Buddhist, Hindu, or Muslim, in the advanced industrial societies of this world, this is for most simply a genuflection to our past and not a reality. The reality is that the religion of our cultures is in fact science. It is science to which we turn to address life and death, but for the most part the manner in which we do so is evasive: we fill ourselves with vaccines and drugs to ward off death; we take invasive measure to replace worn parts; and we surround ourselves with the thundering noise of technologically “scientific” gadgets to distract ourselves from confronting, in the sacred sense, our deaths. In effect, as best we can, we flee from death.
Ironically however, the imagery which science produces, without any intention of being so, is surely the art of our time, and it is this imagery which inadvertently provokes us into contemplating death, even as we rush to avoid it. (This is perhaps why the imagery of science is so little seen outside specialist magazines and the laboratories in which it is used – precisely because its shadings are the stuff of art itself.) In the last decades much – even overwhelmingly most of this imagery, and is accompanying artifacts – has been digitally based.
So the answer to our query, is there a convergence in digital media and art, is a forceful YES, but we must look in the right place: the art of our time is science, precisely because science is the religion of our time, as actually practiced.
Ironically and appropriately that very science – a Prometheus’ fire of which ancient fable warns us – is the very tool and implement which in our evasive response before death, is rapidly bringing death to us collectively by our abuse of the world in which we live. Science and the technology it gives us turns us away from acknowledging and confronting the very information which that science now places before us.
I have no doubt that at the moment – seemingly almost upon us – when the priests of science can surely raise a final Eureka ! and announce that we finally understand everything of the mechanisms of our physical existence, from the micro to the macro – that this will be the moment when our kind has auto-destructed, destroyed by the very tools which we used to arrive at our amazing knowledge. We are vastly clever, but evidently we are not wise.
Ancient mythologies from all cultures admonish us of this, but as ever, we are heedless and do not learn. In our busy attempt to construct, by digital means, a grand virtual universe with which we imagine to supplant the real one, we have expanded Plato’s cave exponentially and lost track of where shadow and substance separate. We are lost in hubris, and the price, as ever, will be fatal. The digital art – that made by science – as real art will be, is powerfully beautiful, but the message it carries is the same as ever: we will die. Confronted with this, despite the trivial culture which surrounds us, it poses the question for us: how shall we live? In doing so, it carries out the proper function of art, even if by default.
And so ended the lecture, with an audience of young Koreans likely understanding very little of it since it hadn’t been translated, and though I excised from the above considerably, and spoke slowly, I doubt it had any function. They probably had their heads in their cell phones anyway.
The duck was so so, though the place was famed for its duck, so I was told. As it arrived I was informed the restaurant said it took three hours to cook, as if this was a prized matter. The meat slipped off the bone, the taste was pretty much gone, and in my book it had been drastically over-done. However, cynically, I picked up my $650 honorarium.