The vital signs of processual art

Baruch Gottlieb


Is Processual Art the New Cinema?

This question arose in my preliminary discussions with Susanne Jaschko about this exhibition. I imagined the home of the (near) future where every wall is a media surface, where the occupant can choose from a program of processual works to provide the living space with a ambient media surface which is always new and fresh. It could be a kind of visual MUZAK, but it could as easily be a form of ambient cinema, thousands of hours long in permutations, forms of narrative which take months to traverse, or computer generated traversals of personal, historic or world events.

Already we see the beginnings of the domestic use of generative media. Music visualizations are a good example; these pulsating colourful forms are generated from frequency analysis of the music in real time. The ‘smart playlists’ are another common application, these automatically compile always new sequences of musical selections according to certain affinities, and with a sense of musical ebb and flow, and even downloading new music according to the owner’s “preferences” ascertained by the software. In a world in which our experience is increasingly being generated for us automatically, artists and designers are inspired to examine and articulate the fundamental qualities of this ever more intimate relation between human beings and computing technologies.

The question arises, can we trust these machines to make all these decisions for us? Certainly, with music selection, there can be little harm. But the implementation of automated ‘smart’ processes in other aspects of contemporary existence, and, in particular, the political presence of the person in society deserve close attention, since it appears that the very notion of society is being transformed by these new technologies. And by attributing “smart”ness to these automated processes aren’t we on the road to letting machines take over our critical faculties? Many of the works we see in this show seem to process this question.

One thing is clear, the computer allows us to represent a much more complex world than can cinema. And in this complexity we seem to trust our organic human capacities less and less to make sense of it all unaided. The world has always been complex, but today, traversed in light-speed communication, for better or for worse, it also produces continuous flows of data of various kinds. Constantly monitored, screened, filtered and interpreted by automated process the happenings of this world are producing vast amounts of potentially vital information which leads to the burning question of under what regime of values what information is important or not is determined.

We see here the snowball effect of industrial technology which Marx clearly observed back in the mid- 19th century . One industrial process spawns innumerable others which, in turn, spawn myriad more. The trend is toward miniaturization and of industrial products which have all the complexity of ‘Natural’ living beings. And we can easily see how computers beget more computers, and the resulting products of the information industry only create the need for more and ‘better’ data.

Our understanding of ourselves is increasingly interfaced by industrial processes. In this way, what has become inescapable is that culture and economy and politics are symbiotic. In the early 20th century, it began to be apparent that our concept of the world can never be complete, it must be a permeable concept of the world which leaves much allowance for the unknown. Everything can be seen to be in process and part of other greater and smaller processes.

This view of the world as interweaving matrices of processes is entering mainstream consciousness. As much as we look for reasons and causes, as much as we investigate the picture or the object, we attempt to observe rhythms and distinguish patterns, as we interpret our place in this world of fluxes. The works in this exhibition are diverse approaches to encounter this uncomfortable and incomprehensible Weltanschauung afforded, insinuated and almost imposed (in the Kantian sense) by today’s technologies which, originating in science, have permeated art and design as they have industry, medicine, the military and so on.

Indeed, it may appear that that old expression ‘Data Processing’ has become the great leveller of all human activity (in the so-called developed world at least). As a consequence, we increasingly see artists interested in industrial processes as much as industries are becoming interested in art.

In this exhibition, we can see how many of the participants have created microcosms, custom-built art- universes wherein certain processes can be appreciated aesthetically and interpreted. Reminiscent of home aquariums, or ant farms, the specimens under observation have a certain fascinating autonomy compromised by an arbitrarily imposed structure. We can see the same art of structuring ‘wild’ data in the gardens of Versailles.

These works are like performing automata, perpetua mobilia, the self-moving machines, philosophers-scientists and engineers have postulated and pondered for millennia. Processual art may be, at times, more akin to live performance than cinema, where the automated processes set in motion are biological or chemical or social. But in every case there is a strong enquiry into the rules and structures which underlie the aesthetic form which is generated.

Monitoring through Screens

Processual art tends toward giving an overview. We are transported out of the disorientation at the ‘human scale’ to a place where we can recognize the patterns in the surging forces. This view is exhilarating, like the view from the window of an air plane taking off. The overview gives one the impression of being in control, of being ‘on top of things’ as the expression goes, of somehow magically understanding more. But this contentment is short lived.

For the processual work which offers us the visio regis, or the view of the sovereign who rules over all he or she surveys, also makes us beholden to the systems which put us there. This stirring perspective can be afforded today to anyone, but one should remember that, in the case of the sovereign, this overview comes with the responsibilities of the state, that, in many ways, the sovereign is the least free person in the state, and that if we are to the assert our freedom, we may have to abdicate.

We cannot forget that, for all the lightness, light-speediness and the incredible overviews afforded by our networked experience, and all the sheerness and smoothness of the most advanced surfaces, all of it is dependent on hardware. We must acknowledge the hardware beholdenness of all our technological art. That this hard ware is produced through hard facts: where and when the materials which become the technology must be (have been) extracted from the earth somewhere before they can be refined into these exquisite processual instruments.

Industrial production continues, fragmented around the world, it is still very much going strong. But the reality presented in processual works is in a place very far removed from the industrial reality of the production. This is what we may call the art challenge of using technology, to make the viewer forget the industrial nature of the technology used.

Inherent to this industrial nature are unfair relations of labour, here at home, and elsewhere, the persistence of slavery and indentured labour (the Yes Men do a nice take on this) , and, especially the lack of parity in the league of nations, in living standards, and, most importantly for me, this is not just in words, it is in the materials of technology itself.

Several recent films and media campaigns draw our attention to some of the problematic deep material relations of high technology utopias in a presentation at last transmediale, in the so-called conflict minerals trade. This extraction from the earth of metals and minerals and other necessary ingredients for high-technology must be accomplished by particular individuals at particular locations at particular stages of their particular lives.

The narratives of these lives are assumed, they are not seen on the surface of the screen, they somehow lurk in the material of the apparatus “gemacht ist eingegangen in das Ding!” The injustice which is central to the materiality of our technology always threatens to flare up, in wars and terrorism and global ‘unrest’. In order to insulate ourselves from the possible dangers of the material world, then, we set up screens. The screen, you may know, etymologically comes from the old French escran écran which was originally the wire mesh which was placed before the warming fire – to block the sparks which could set the house on fire.

Here we might have another analogy for some of the works in this exhibition. Some are like aquariums, and some are like hearths. In one sense, we may watch this processual art like a warming fire, glorious patterns of immolation from which we derive a pleasant angenehm warmth. Michel Serres notes in L’incandescent the one thing which is absolutely unacceptable in all civilized nations on earth is human blood sacrifice, yet every day we are compelled to watch the slaughter of innocents on tele-visual screens.

Screens protect us from the danger, physical or psychological that unprotected exposure to the world may incur. Screens are filters through which we extract from reality what we wish to consume. A computer screen also promises us we can ignore anything with impunity because the technology will be constantly monitoring processes and alert us on-screen if any of them become threatening. Of course, the machines must be instructed how to detect a threat. And this is the art of the algorithm. The algorithm, a mathematical formula, which allows the computer to evaluate the data coming in through its sensor arrays and determine a threat level. Or, as can be seen in this exhibition, these same algorithms can be used to produce aesthetic effects from the same data. The nascent threat can be beautiful. and so can the idle time where there is no threat, the waiting for the next alert, the beauty of the incipient threat in every moment —.

This nagging threat, the clinging hint of our own mortality, is a reminder to visit the doctor. If a problem is detected, the patient is surrounded with monitors. The monitors, now form part of the cyborg therapeutic attention, in which we can all participate, monitoring the health of the patient.
The word monitor is derived from the Latin verb “monere” which means originally “to admonish, warn, advise”. Lev Manovich in his landmark book, Language of New Media, described the first television, the first real-time monitor which was the radar screen . Here, the connotation of warning is obvious.

In computer generative art , what appears on the screens and monitors are visualizations of what are considered the “vital signs” of the patient. By reading these signs, even the uninitiated can imagine what is going on inside the patient. So here, the metaphor is that, with the monitors, we are monitoring (can one say the health of) the body of society, or even that of our civilization, such as it can be conceived to be, in real time, for signs of various kinds.

We get warnings, but we also get information about what we need or want or like, but most of all, the monitors tell us that the body of society is still alive and being monitored. But more significantly, there is a stand in, an avatar for the body of society and that is the electrical and, increasingly, the communications grid, the condition of which the monitors display. The electrical grid has become an integral part of our contemporary identity, with an increasing amount of our personal lives dependent on it.

This is why computer generative art is so appropriate for public screens; It is public notice of the health of the system. The health of the infrastructure part is verified at the refresh rate of 50 or 60 times a second (the oscillation rate of electrical current), but also and implicitly, the ongoing process of civilization’s complex social and economic systems, which are always incomplete and ongoing are monitored. A comforting illusion of social constancy is also thus generated.

This is also why we must monitor the consequences of our abstract, hardly articulate faith in the noble cause of technological progress and its incipient industry. The men standing around the mine from which the materials are abstracted from the earth, with their personal individual histories and needs are at work right now perpetually inside the monitoring screens.

From Structure to Ambiance

Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi was particularly striking in how it documented the generative art in the flows of industrialized metropolis. We can observe the same fascination going back the beginnings of Cinema, in the kinetic cityscapes of Walter Ruttmann and Dziga Vertov which revel in the unpredictable patterns and flows produced by the city’s structures and rules. There seems to be something essential in photography which allows us to be particularly appreciative of the aleatory aesthetics of urban agglomeration.

These films are also precursors of generative narratives built in real-time from databases of media clips. Film, flattening out the world into uniform frames allowed for a new irreverence explored by these early creators, juxtaposing wildly varying contents. Digitization makes text, video, music and all manner of other information into interchangeable and recombinant material, naturally inspiring todays creators to ignore formal and genre conventions and produce new hybrid database aesthetics. It won’t be long until we can have a Godfrey Reggio algorithm to make a Koyaanisqatsi out of our last years holiday videos, photos, even integrating our emails, chats and tweets from the period generated in real time for as long as we like.

The first surviving photographs of Niepce and of Daguerre show the aleatory pattern of rooftops generated by zoning rules and engineering conventions. One might begin to theorize that general awareness of the rules of physics and chemistry essential to the technical image began to generate an appreciation for the aleatory forms and patterns of urbanity generated by laws and conventions.

We can see again the parallel between what is happening in these microcosms and what we experience as social organisms in the city. If we take a step back into what Vilém Flusser calls “political consciousness” , we can attempt to articulate systems, with laws and rules which generate the phenomena we encounter, certain conventions and written laws generate in the civil mass myriad efflorescences of activities and events.

Processual art may be particularly helpful in one application, that of helping us cultivate an awareness of the deep material reality of our technological age which underpins and generates the institutions and industries which offer us exhibitions like this one, and provide Begriffe and strategies to help us coalesce our understanding. Processual art has the unique ability of allowing the viewer to traverse complex models of relations, interpersonal relations, economic relations, relative physics, in real time. These models may even be most attuned to providing the models which will help us understand what our technology actually is. Processual work is not techno-deterministic, it promises no new terms, rather it presents a problem as an ambiance which must be inhabited and engaged with gradually.

In a world in perpetual crisis, we no longer work toward a grand historical shift, rather we monitor the incremental social progress which can be gauged. Here we may recall another etymological sense of “monitor” to “admonish”. The monitor is there to keep us in line, as a society, as a civilization. To keep us on the course. The monitors and screens, at which we enjoy (angenehm) processual art, you see, have their own agenda.