Saturday, June 8, 2013



For a long time I have been concerned about the computer's ever more incursive role in mediating communications and knowledge in our society.  In just the last twenty years, we have witnessed an almost universal digitalization of information - the word processor, cellular phones, teller machines at banks, and audio discs are only a few examples visible in our everyday lives.  In more fundamental ways, the computer has transformed the fields of finance, commerce, biotechnology, and warfare.  The computerized world theorized by the utopian technocratic visionaries of the '60s has become reality.

One of the most important attributes of this computerized universe is that it results in the final apotheosis of Cartesian thought.  The workings of the computer are a hyper-Cartesian world of on-off functions, repeated millions upon millions of times.  The advent of the computer has resulted in the heretofore unequaled hegemony of Cartesian process to the point that it invades every aspect of culture.

What impresses me is that sitting down at a personal computer, with its array of Microsoft or Apple software, is a seamless consumer experience no different from a visit to an airport, a shopping mall, Disney World, or McDonald's.  At the keyboard, one experiences, in disembodied form, the same pleasant but rigid selection of options, the same unbending direction of pathways, and the same totalized ideological seduction that one experiences in the highly regulated physical spaces of our culture.  My focus in thinking about computers has accordingly changed.  I have become interested in the PC as a space of Pop culture.  Working with a PC is no less a Pop experience than a drive through suburbia.

Significantly, though, the PC yields no Pop iconography like Warhol's Campbell's Soup Cans.  It results instead in Pop processes.  Working with Illustrator, Quark, or Photoshop, one is necessarily limited to a series of Pop options, an electric equivalent to Jasper John's use of stenciled numbers in the '50s.

In working with the new software matrices, I am reminded of an experience I had several years ago, when I did a project for Tema Celeste consisting of photos of airports.  For that project, I visited the airports in Dallas and Atlanta, and the public relations officials gave me a "behind-the-scenes" tour of the facilities.  I learned that at each airport, below the upper floor on which passengers walk to their planes, there is a ground-level floor in which all the logistics of the operation are hidden, including meeting rooms for pilots, cafeterias, locker rooms for other personnel, and all the baggage-handling machinery.  Standing outdoors on the runways, I discovered that the passenger is completely shielded from the thunderous reality of the huge planes by the air-conditioned terminal and covered jetways that connect the terminal to the plane.  There seemed to be an intense effort to remove the traveler from the complexity and physicality of the whole experience.

The same can be said for the PC.  The foolproof user-friendly world of software creates a seamless, impenetrable interface between the "user" and the mechanics of the computer.  As Frederic Jameson has pointed out, this masking of function, this mystification of the actual workings of technology, has become more and more widespread in our era.  As a result, technology takes on an almost religious presence; it becomes a reality beyond comprehension.

Since the '70s, a number of artists have used the computer as a means of creating "new forms," as a tool for trying to expand the parameters of art.  Their efforts are a late manifestation of the utopian strain of Modernism, which views technology as a means of creating a new and better society.  However, what interests me much more is a recent trend I've perceived, in which artists are using computers to mimic the spectacular effects achieved with the aid of computers in the movies, in military simulations, and in the burgeoning virtual-reality industry.  This work considers what can be done with computers in a much more skeptical light.



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