Friday, July 30, 2010


I first experienced Brennan McGaffey's audio work while driving to the gallery for the opening reception of his project FM 89.5. My radio was tuned to 89.5 and was picking up a gnarled, rumbling sound that didn't make much sense to me. I was coming from a pirate radio station where I had just finished my weekly show of experimental, electronic music.

I was ready to condemn the project. My radio show and everything else the pirate station broadcast was created for a community. We were radically democratizing the use of radio. Brennan's project seemed like a cynical art gesture that operated publicly without considering whether the public wanted it or not.

I arrived at the gallery ready to have my expectations confirmed. I met Brennan and read his project description. Embarrassment quickly followed. I was very excited to have been completely wrong. Over the course of the next few months, after having conversations with Brennan and listening to his work, I learned a lot about sound, radio and audiences for everything from Citizen's Band (CB) to mysterious short-wave radio practices.

Two of Brennan's recent projects, FM 89.5 and Project Citizens Band, were broadcast over FM and CB respectively. Each project presented material that confounded and expanded my expectations of what audio work is. When you hear this work it seems more like interference or coded material than experimental music or sound.

FM 89.5 used a 25-watt stereo transmitter to broadcast the audio work. With the help of local musician and composer Ernst Long, Brennan constructed tracks that functioned as "sound masking for road and expressway." Sound masking is the use of one sound to cover up another. The sounds encountered while driving a car are coming from several sources. There is the sound from the wind hitting the car. There are the sounds that the engine makes and those of the tires lapping the asphalt. Add to this the sound coming from other cars on the road. Several tracks were made taking all of these factors into consideration. Different tracks were made anticipating the varying densities of traffic throughout the day. The tracks were played at specific times during the day to mask the corresponding traffic noises. A separate track was made for rainy days. The audio tracks were played continuously for a month.

Project Citizens Band was also a series of transmitted audio tracks. Brennan boosted a CB so that the signal would "skip" onto short wave radio. This time Brennan broadcast what he loosely refers to as "mood" enhancement. Similar to FM 89.5, the audio was built around different times of the day. The first track broadcast at 8:30 am was appropriately titled "Morning Coffee." It is not the kind of thing you would immediately associate with "mood" music. It does not sound anything like the new age music that is intended to subconsciously expand your mind. Nor does it function like "Lite FM" radio supposedly transforming your work at a tedious job into a more pleasant experience. Approaching Brennan's work with fixed expectations leads to frustration.

Brennan takes the trouble to construct his own aural phenomena in a strange reversal of John Cage's claim that every sound found in the world is music if you just know how to listen. The audio that he builds has some similarities to the minimal electronic music of contemporary musicians like Ryoji Ikeda and Bernhard Günter. However, Brennan's audio is stripped of the emotional content that you would find in these musicians' work. The audio has an odd indifference similar to that of the humming of a refrigerator. It is hard to listen to Brennan's audio on its own out of the context of the broadcast. This is crucial to understanding Brennan's intentions and his expectations of how others will respond.

Brennan's audio work frustrates peoples' attempts to consume it as entertainment. This is something that has brought considerable backlash to him from art audiences. The rigid expectations of gallery-goers obstruct their understanding of his work. For example, Brennan didn't provide radios for visitors to the gallery. His work was not audible within the space. This is not where he wanted people to experience FM 89.5. This project was intended to be heard in the car while driving around.

FM 89.5 started to make a lot of sense after I encountered it over several days under different traffic conditions. The work demands an attentiveness and way of listening that you don't use when tuned to a commercial, college or even pirate radio station. I had to learn how to approach the strange sounds coming through my radio. The effect of driving and listening to FM 89.5 often had some eerie results. On a couple of occasions a sound continuum between the inside and the outside of the car formed. It made me both giddy and uncomfortable. It aurally dissolved the car leaving me with a strong feeling of vulnerability. On other occasions the soundmasking worked and some of the road noise was cancelled out.

Hearing broadcasts repeatedly over several days and weeks and measuring those sounds against what you know and what you are experiencing in the moment is concretely different from the ways most people are used to listening to music. This work is open-ended and not conveniently packaged into a 3-minute standard format. Brennan is using the radio as a medium. He speaks enthusiastically about the early days of radio when it was unformed and open to experimentation. Radio quickly passed through this stage and adopted its modern day format. Radio is used as a means to a broadcasting end and not as an end itself. The slickness of radio broadcasting is numbing. It has such a grip on peoples' expectations that it creates a climate that stifles innovation and experimentation.

CB is a messier method of transmitting and receiving information. It has an openness you don't find in regular radio use. However, CB is not an ideal and democratic place for exchange. Transmissions are quite often ugly, sexist and crass. The decision to use CB brought Brennan yet another wave of backlash. People would frequently tell him that no one used CB anymore. It couldn't compete with the use of cell phones and had become obsolete. Spending ten minutes listening to a CB radio at any given time of day reveals that the opposite is the case. There is a lot of use and some various subcultures can be found there: truckers fighting off the loneliness of the road, maverick loners with rambling monologues, guys in their garages discussing their equipment and people trafficking in illegal substances.

Brennan chose to broadcast via a boosted CB radio so that the signal would "skip." CB is short wave but is kept local by restricting output. Potentially, the signal could travel around the country. Short wave radio has interesting subcultures and uses that have developed on an international level. There are users that broadcast just to see how far they are able to send their signals. The recently deceased King Hussein of Jordan was an avid short wave user and was well known and highly respected in short wave and HAM radio circles. International audiences will continue to develop around the different uses of short wave. There is an entire subculture that has sprung up around numbers stations. If you didn't know what it was when you first heard it, you might mistake the audio transmissions of Project Citizens Band for a numbers station. This phenomenon is well documented by a four CD set called The CONET Project (available from Irdial records). Numbers stations have operated since the cold war. They are believed to be stations that transmit coded material to spies working in the field. Of course, governments deny any knowledge or use of numbers stations. The transmitters were tracked to secured military bases. The first channels consisted solely of individuals reading strings of numbers live over the air. Many stunning variations on this theme are documented: numbers stations use gongs, buzzing and computerized voices to send secret messages.

How is the audio for Project Citizens Band received and how does it affect those that hear it? Where FM 89.5 sought to change the acoustical space surrounding the radio, Project Citizens Band was developed to impact the psychological space. Brennan did a lot of research looking at New Age music and the claims it made to impact peoples' moods. What he repeatedly encountered were for him a lot of unjustifiable claims and nonsensical applications. How then can Brennan's audio function as "mood" music? A clue comes from a reference I first heard mentioned on the program "This American Life" broadcast on National Public Radio. A musician takes tonal readings of rooms as a beginning point for composing music. For example, when he measured his kitchen he added up all the sources of sound coming from the room. There was the humming of the refrigerator, the beeping of the microwave as you keyed in the cooking time and the droning of the microwave as it cooked food. The musician measured the tone of each sound with a tuning pipe. He would then play all three tones on his keyboard to demonstrate their combination. Together they added up to make a chord in a minor key: a sound that usually has associations of discomfort and bad feelings. The musician would cross reference the chords of a room with guides he had where someone had actually tried to morally assess all the possible chords and combinations of tones.

This is only a blind stab at figuring out how Project Citizens Band could have effected the psychological space of a person listening to short wave or CB. Perhaps the project created an effect that shifted the tonal space of a room or car that someone happened to be in while listening to the sounds. This is not a satisfying solution and leaves me wanting a lot more. When I listened to the transmissions, they were never clean and clear. They were always encountered with a lot of interference. This did make them interesting to listen to, but made me suspect of how they could actually function as mood enhancement. I am uncertain about the impact the sounds have on me when I listen to the tracks on the CD. The main question that remains is how others encountered this work and what they thought and felt.

Project Citizens Band ran for one month, not nearly enough time for people to hear it repeatedly and form their own theories and responses. It took many years for the numbers channels to develop the following they now have. A local cab company used the channel, that Brennan chose to transmit Project Citizens Band on, to dispatch its drivers. You have to imagine that the drivers heard these sounds. I never once heard direct commentary on the transmissions. It is common to encounter an enormous amount of interference on CB. Interference that wasn't continually imposing is easy to dismiss. Most people that use CB radio on a regular basis shrug off interference as well as the comments of belligerent users. If the project had continued for a year, then they would have had no choice but to respond in some manner. The decision to only transmit for one month put a damper on the kinds of responses that could develop. The standard art format of having an exhibit run for a month really limited how people were able to respond. It also limited the learning process of doing it for a long time and allowing a wide range of responses to occur. Project Citizens Band needed to go for a much longer time for it to be picked up and mulled over by those eager and willing to track it down and figure it out.

I can imagine a project like FM 89.5 going for several years. I am certain that people would come to it repeatedly perhaps by accident or while they were scanning the channels for something to listen to. They would share it with others and try to figure out exactly what it was. Eventually Brennan would hear how people were responding. Brennan's audio projects are a rich source of strategies. They serve as a guide for those seeking to work in an expanded manner. His work demands a different maintenance and support than what the art world generally has to offer. It is clear that his work would be received and responded to in ways similar to the subculture that has developed around numbers stations.

The use of radio as a medium is virtually non-existent. At the pirate radio station we truly believed that we were doing important community work. We unquestioningly adopted a format that was standardized long before our births. We hadn't even considered the uses that Brennan's projects posited. The radio station is now defunct and I am still not certain if it had much of an impact beyond an important yet microscopic experiment in democracy. Even though Brennan doesn't see his work in terms of democratic experimentation, the implications of his ways of working are broad. Just the idea of taking something like radio - a medium that is overly standardized and regulated in a way that protects commercial interests and consumer culture over the interests of those working for more community based and individual concerns - is more than most people are capable of. Projects like Brennan's keep art interesting and vital and refuse the resurgence of the model of the artist working within closed-off, tightly controlled commercial structures.

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Thursday, July 29, 2010

On Boredom, Clyd Drexler

“Boring?! Wasn’t that the period when they cracked the human genome and boy bands roamed the Earth?” Professor Farnsworth’s profound confusion about what and why boredom actually is belies quite a few fundamental questions and interests, comedically articulated in the animated TV show Futurama. Evidently, boredom doesn’t exist in the future, being specific to our era, when ‘boy bands roamed the Earth’. When the show’s protagonist Fry exclaims that his colleagues look as bored in the year 3000 as they did in his time (the 20th century), he is projecting our already culturally developed interests in boredom far into the future. Fry’s analysis of his friends as “boring, like everything from my time” indicates that boredom is exclusively a cultural phenomenon and reified in the media (as well as criticism), and not a trans-historical phenomenon. What the popular TV show hits on is a canonized subject in the post-enlightenment humanities; boredom is rooted in modern society.

The focal point here is not to reveal whether or not boredom has linear attachments to other phenomena like violence, repetition need or the manifold other theories that have been postulated. Neither is it to interrogate whether or not boredom is trans-cultural and metaphysical, as philosophers like Martin Heidegger and Lars Svendsen have done. Rather, I want to ask, Why is it that in this particular moment, we are so obsessed with the concept of boredom. What is the significance of focusing on this concept so exhaustively?

We should be prepared for the worst – that the feeling of boredom does not actually exist. This would be an unfortunate scenario because we seem to have an overt collective interest boredom, by analytically obsessing over it. The word ‘boredom’ doesn’t even exist until the 19th century. That boredom as a constructed concept emerges suggests some type of parallel phenomenon between modernity and the feeling of boredom. For this reason, boredom is often blamed on the industrialization that creates repetitive, dull, behavior. Further support for boredom’s emergence comes from the philosophical field of that era; Kierkegaard attributed much of the evil in the world singularly to boredom, Nietzsche examined it, and Schopenhauer used the concept of boredom as a tool to provoke his readers. But it isn’t until the 20th century that boredom got an exaggerated, romanticized consideration. Martin Heidegger almost single-handedly rekindled the issue of boredom in his phenomenology, and ever since a plenitude of philosophers and cultural anthropologists have continued to explore the significance of boredom (Jean Luc Marion, Elizabeth Goodstein, Lars Svendsen, to name a few). Just as Heidegger’s phenomenology of boredom extended out into the future, it also receded into the past, before boredom qua word or concept existed, and this is the crux of the situation – separating out boredom as a fundamental feeling on one hand, and boredom as a feeling symptomatic of an industrial or post-industrial era on the other.

Heidegger’s philosophy situated boredom as a transhistorical, metaphysical entity. Most problematic in his evasion of boredom as a historically bound phenomena was his conservative postulation that boredom was a necessary state of being-in-the-world which modernity had to get back to, so to speak. Heidegger, however, is symptomatic of a condition that is rooted not only in his specific historical period, but his specific historical place as well. Also writing about boredom at this time and place of Weimar Germany was Sigfried Kracauer, albeit from a completely different set of theoretical principles. Kracauer, in a short rumination on boredom, waxes on the emergence of boredom in bourgeois society, and its advancement into what Theodor Adorno would later call the culture industry. In the new age of capitalism, where labor transforms and mixes with culture, leisure time is dosed out and boredom is awarded a special position as something that is desired. Slightly later, Frankfurt School theorists like Walter Benjamin would identify boredom as a symptom of a regressive era hellbent on disaster through alienating labor and culture. Taken together, boredom is unavoidably seen as the spirit of the age.

Lars Svendsen, in his Philosophy of Boredom singles out ‘boredom’ as a serious problem which plagues our culture, leading en masse a brigade of transgression seeking subjects who will go to violent lengths to see to it that this plague is purged. But what are we transgressing? Which is also to ask, What is it that violence, technology, extreme behavior, etc. as reflexes of boredom, are supposedly attempting to transgress? Since we desire, value, and create boredom, we are not simply running away from it, but intentionally running into it. Still life paintings of fruit, acoustic ceiling tiles, fluorescent lights, a brown painted room with no windows, blank sheets of paper; these are all things that are ‘boring’ to people, or so I was told in interviews. Desperately searching for a connection within these lists of boring objects, I couldn’t grasp onto anything objective at first. But when one zooms out, the connection is fairly obvious: the objects are all man-made or man manipulated. Not once did someone say that sitting in a meadow at dusk or watching a sunset was boring, i.e. that the only boring things occur within a network of social relations filtered through objects.

Not only has boredom become a subject of pop culture, but that subject matter and it’s theoretical field has been appropriated from from philosophy and modernism’s avant-garde literature, such as Madam Bovery, as a prime example of Victorian era ennui-pathology. Boredom was both plaque and fashion in the 19th century bourgeois life. One era-specific problem lies in the collectively-distributed yearning for something more in the promise for freedom in the individual. This might be called a ‘transgressive’ act to Svendsen, or in Heidegger’s philosophy be attributed to the supposedly purely negative effects of technology. A real hindrance though is not that we are either escaping the metaphysical necessity of boredom via technology, as Heidegger would say, but that we confuse technology with being something other than ourselves, and continue to reify it. In reality technology is a form of socializing.

Boredom, as a concept, is often most developed in art and pop culture. I already mentioned Futurama, an animated show that drops the term liberally throughout its run. 2001: A Space Odyssey isn’t too far from Futurama and it amounted in some ways to an experience of boredom and technology which parallels Heidegger’s formulation. The image of the apes staring out into desolation captures the image of boredom perfectly. Its almost as if as soon as they discovered that they were bored, technology was created as an escape route. However, technology seems to be an excuse to develop boredom as well. Boring downtime – the culmination of generations of technological sophistication – is internal to the astronauts in the movie and likewise is also crucial to the viewers watching it. Those involved in the film production describe how the ‘slowness’ of the movie was an extension of the slowness of the technology at that time, which simply couldn’t render certain things fast enough. What is curious is how those technological resources inadvertently led to a result of a boring — but, and here is the payoff, mesmerizing — experience for the viewer. It seems that often technological roads inadvertently lead to boredom.

Likewise, the film Solaris posed similar ideology at the same time. Tarkovsky, the film’s director even wrote exhaustively on the metaphysical hopes for boredom. His adaptation of Stanislaw Lem’s science fiction novel was the perfect opportunity to force viewers into an ‘authentic’ experience of time, via saturating them in boredom. In the 1960’s and early 1970’s, boredom became vogue once again, if only as an avant-garde strategy. If the exalted metaphysical experiences which were supposed to be vested in painting seemed outdated, conceptual artists and theatrical minds like Richard Foreman sought to bring boredom into the aesthetic experience to counteract the falsity of such claims. Early Richard Foreman theatrical pieces intentionally downplayed the performers and actors to mere serialist readers who were put in place to bore the audience into submission or escape.

A friend of mine recently told me that when he was admitted into the MFA writing program at SAIC, he was shocked to find that not only were peers not averse to boredom in theater and performance, but were aggressively seeking long, exceptionally boring pieces. Invoking boredom has been a steady strategy of the avant-garde tendency to deny the autonomy of mass culture. However, much of this strategy has been absorbed by mass culture as well, as the success of 2001 A Space Odyssey has shown. Likewise, David Foster Wallace was investigating boredom at the time of his death through analyzing office life and the banal aspects of bureaucracy. It appears as if the precious obsession with boredom is unceasing, perhaps because the banality of bureaucracy continues to tighten its grip around contemporary subjectivity.

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Monday, July 26, 2010


Paľo Fabuš
essay / Umělec 1/2009 / cz en de es

There is perhaps no term more problematic than newness. Despite its ambiguity, this word is surrounded by other generally unexpressed words. First and foremost, “new” always implies the possibility of change. It brings with it hope, and the suggestion of something different, something previously unknown and potentially better than what has existed before.
New also means unexplored, uncertain, unproven. It draws its content from its own context and is always-already engaged in maturation or self-examination. Because this path away from newness leads through a field of possibilities, the shape of the new is constantly—if not dramatically—changing, and its resemblance to its original form gradually disappears, while new, unexpected features appear. The non-new lies at the end of this path, with a relatively fixed form for the first time. The initially dominant possibilities have “stiffened” to requisites and are merely a thin layer on the surface.
It has already been possible to assert for some time now that the field of culture, whose agenda flew the flag of “the new,” has entered a non-new state. New media is no longer new, and whether we understand it as a part of culture, a set of technologies, a field of studies, or a specific discourse or art form, its basis and catalyst was an ideology—an ideology whose promising potential has already largely burned out. This may be most true for the field of the so-called “new media arts,”1 so we will look at what this ideology consisted of, from whence it drew its motivation, and most importantly, why it fell quiet after such an intense initial wave of enthusiasm.
It is not surprising that the question of the demise of new media is not asked often or out loud. The enthusiasm, that once surrounded new media, has faded away rather than burned out, which is common with trends and questions of fashion. But new media had always set goals for itself beyond common, superficial tendencies. According to its own ideas, it was meant to herald a new artistic (and eventually cultural) paradigm. So why didn’t it lead anywhere?
According to Geert Lovink, the problem is that new media never extended beyond its own frame of reference—it remained a closed and self-referential field.2 It is not surprising that the disinterest of mainstream cultural institutions became a topic of “ever-present sentiment” in the field of new media.3 This alleged obliviousness was justified with institutional explanations,4 historical comparisons to how long it took for people to accept photography and video art as part of mainstream art,5 and claims th at it was the result of an ambivalence toward the term “new media” itself.6 No one looked for a problem within new media itself, however.
As we will see, claims about the mainstream ignoring the new media are only partially true. However, the position and meaning of new media, which had proclaimed its future importance, cannot be understood without looking into the spirit of the period from which they came. Sociologists and historians speak of a culmination of historical processes whose characteristics merge into our daily lives. As a result, we have a tendency to overlook these processes and the important constituent elements of today’s situation, in which the art of new media is a significant expression of the spirit of the day. Therefore, examination of the position and significance of new media is, first and foremost, a historical inquiry.

New Media under the Microscope of History
New media was connected in its beginnings—at a time of rapid democratization in the realm of information technology—with an important historical breakthrough, a cultural revolution, a promise of something better. The ideology that developed around new media was built on shaky foundations; new media shut itself off from the influence of socio-cultural history, and—to paraphrase Marshall McLuhan—drew on its background like a child painting on the casing of an atom bomb.
Theories of contemporary society, sometimes labeled late modernity, look back at processes that began in the 17th and 18th centuries with a gradual refusal of the dogmas by newly-born natural sciences. These new stances, along with changes in the political climate and social institutions, accompanied capitalism’s emergence. British sociologist Anthony Giddens has identified three types of discontinuity in this shift from traditional to modern society: 1) a growth in rapid changes, 2) their global reach, and 3) the character of modern institutions (new social formations like the nation-state, for example).7 Along with questions on the meaning of history, the idea of progress as part of the work of man comes to the foreground.8 Distinctly assisted by the protestant ethic, a new ethos appears, characterized by “a turn to the world”—its basic attitude towards the world becomes “its domination.”9 This leads to an internalization of personality and a systematization of life. Emphasis is placed on self-discipline, enduring work and rational interactions.10 Until then, an orientation to the past was based on re-interpreting its traditions. This quickly makes way for a focus on the future.11 Through the processing of time by mechanical watches and money as “frozen work,” time-spatial relations have been separated, and social systems organized as such have escaped their original contexts—this so that they would reconfigure themselves in the new set up.12 Communication and relationship maintenance need no longer take place face-to-face—space becomes increasingly “phantasmagoric.”13 This requires members of society to place more trust in institutions and systems with which they do not have immediate interaction. An increasingly intense polarization of trust and risk, threat and opportunity, local and global pervades all aspects of everyday life14 and increases the demand for reflection. This means that social practice is constantly reviewed and adjusted based on observations of this practice.
Today we are already experiencing a radicalized form of these processes. Rationalization in the form of modern sciences, technologies and reflexivity affects all of society’s—as well as the individual’s—everyday life; it represents important constituents of today’s society and leads to the development of further characteristics.
After the Second World War, sudden economic development and gradual decreases in the number of working hours led to the “discovery” of free time. This created favorable conditions for the introduction of television as a new medium, as well as an increased attentiveness to the quality of one’s own life in the form of therapeutic sensitivity during the 1960s. People began to speak and dress in public as if they were at home. They had increasingly large amounts of time for the consumption of mass culture and for personal introspection. “Out of Post-modernism came an era of liberation.”15 Internal life was rationalized by constructing false dreams and escaping from reality, and this was done to an extent only possible within mass culture, which reinforces the hunger for it.
The commodification of a visual culture that reciprocally strengthens itself with the aestheticization of everyday life leads to a “society of spectacle,” and this reflexivity culminates in the phenomenon that Christoph Lasch labels “narcissism.” Lasch observes that while in the 18th and 19th centuries portraits served as an indicator of social status and the documentation of individual existence, the easily-accessible photographic (and later video) technologies offer a medium for permanent self-contemplation. They create a narcissistic dependence on the consumption of images of oneself and re-assessment of the external world’s reality.16
A performing personality is a typical by-product of narcissism. Modern society views the Self as a performer, constantly being watched by friends and strangers.17 The social trend of accentuating style according to aesthetic pressure is pervasive. The shift from the manufacture of goods to the manufacture of images has made art mundane. Increasingly, this blurs the boundaries between high and low art and between the performer and his or her audience. “The diffused audience,” —the audience, of which we are all members all the time—makes everyday life an unceasing, constant performance.
Then, digital technologies entered the picture. They have been viewed as a beneficent power from the beginning. The enormous expansion of personal computer technologies during the 1980s, later rubber-stamped by the birth of the World Wide Web in the early 1990s, illustrates a dual impulse for ideology to thrive in the fields of culture as well as in economics and politics. This leads to a new call for unrestricted ideas on decentralization and sudden democratic development, as well as a resuscitation of the ideas of Marshall McLuhan on “the global village” dating from the 1960s. There is a significant abundance of terms such as “revolution,” “new society” and “new culture.”18
The unintended consequences of this ideology, described as “communicational” by Jaromír Volek, soon became apparent. The long-term tension typical of modernity showed itself here as a clash between portended social integration, cultural assimilation and traditional community norms on one hand, and a tendency toward social differentiation and cultural diversity on the other.19 Volek found this to be a fundamental feature of communication, which “in itself became a social grace.”20
The initial enthusiasm partially subsided in the new millennium with the bursting of the dot-com bubble in 2000, the collapse of the myth of a “borderless” internet, the censorship of web-site content in non-democratic countries and the increasing number of cases of such abuses of information technology. Last but not least, since the beginning of the 1990s, new global problems, such as terrorism and global warming, have come to the fore.
Grand ideologies are a thing of the past and each new imperative and authority is only another potential subject for impugnation. Personal freedom and self-realization become the top priority. Modern man thus finds himself in a world steeped in possibilities. The magic of novelty, this vehicle for possibility, is thus once again reborn in the spirit of technology.

Technological Attraction
Even though she [Agnes] was a cybernetics expert, she didn’t have any idea what was gong on in the head of that machine which was as strange and impenetrable to her as the mechanism of the various objects with which she daily came into contact, from the small computer next to her phone to the dishwasher.
In contrast, Goethe lived during that brief span of history when the level of technology already gave life a certain measure of comfort but when an educated person could still understand all the devices he used Goethe knew how and with what materials his house had been constructed, he knew why his oil lamp gave off light, he knew the principle of the telescope ...and the world of technical object was understandable and fully exposed by his sign. Milan Kundera, Immortality
The opaqueness and attractiveness of advanced technologies cause them to be compared to magic in both fiction and scholarly literature. Let’s recall just one of the well-known “laws” of author Arthur C. Clarke. According to Clarke, each sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. Arnold Gehlen sees here an anthropological fundamental that is responsible for this, an automation inherently present in nature, or phenomenologically perceived in the world as a self-propelled circuit.21 No wonder, that one of the most sought after holy grails in technology, up until the discovery of thermodynamic laws, had been perpetuum mobile. The enchantment of technology, as the embodiment of the endeavour for technical understanding, does not fundamentally differ from the wonder of evolution as nature’s accomplishment—something we gladly forget in the techno-scientific world.
Technology’s ambiguity did not show up in history all by itself. As has already been said, a far-reaching rationalization led not only to the development of new technologies, but also to intellectualization in the purely spiritual realms of the arts and sciences. A bankruptcy of clarity, immediacy and easy access occurred not only because of resulting technologies acting as artifacts and processes, but also because of their creation. As early as the 19th century, the role of the inventor as a creative individual was banished to the outer limits of this period of fast-paced progress or to literary and film reserves, where they take on the form of mad scientists or absent-minded old people.
Technological development has long been an issue explored by large research teams with the tasks divided amongst themselves, and as such their results are pieced together by an anonymous mob of easily interchangeable and confused people from institutions with vested interests. Their objectified nature then makes developing technology into one of “discovery,” “emergence” or literally “falling from the heavens.”22
As we will show later, technology draws more attention than it truly deserves. This feature played and continues to play the role of a loud melody in the cacophony of an increasingly complicated world that lacks a conductor. This comparison to music is not without purpose. We even have a tendency to perceive technologies in time, i.e. as placed within a time continuum. Technological development represents a replacement model for advances in civilization, on which, in this case, the direction has been marked—forward. When we ask about progress, technology overshadows changes in the political environment, morals, art and even general cultural values.
It is therefore understandable that not even history could resist this temptation and marked the dates of invention as important technological conquests. It shows them as replacement milestones for civilization’s advances. The Steam Age, the Atomic Age, the Age of Computers. Technology was responsible for changes in perception (Marshall McLuhan) and even the character of empires (Harold Innis). Innis and McLuhan, both representatives of the so-called Toronto School, are of course not the only ones who emphasised technologies’ guiding role in their search for the causes of social change. In academic circles, this theoretical tendency labeled “technological determinism” was in its prime mainly between the 1950s and 1980s. For the most part it is already passé, but it has held on fairly consistently from the 19th century through today as part of lay contemplation.23 Evidence of this exists in the revival of Marshal McLuhan’s thoughts in the 1990s—specifically in the area of new media, which adopted him as a patron, rashly supposing itself to have fulfilled his prophecy.
Today we know that historical processes and changes in living conditions cannot be explained by just one factor. Technologies are always-already part of a culture and are neither a cause nor a consequence thereof.24 Simply put, we shape technology and technology shapes us. Technology is not a drop of ink that, when dropped into a glass of water, colors the whole content.25 Even digital technology seemingly came to the foreground later than was theoretically possible, taking the form of personal computers in the period up to the mid-1970s—at a time when technologies were associated with loathed capitalism and the Vietnam War.26 Incidentally, the whole field of new media proved to be strongly inclined to an artificial separation of technology from culture and society.27

Novelty and a World of Possibilities
As mentioned at the start of this article, technologies have two moments. These are novelty and the possibilities which arise from it. In his analysis of the relations between technology and global history in the 20th century, David Edgerton comes up with an interesting observation: Too often, we understand the term technology to mean new technology.28 As a result, we do not take into consideration the fact that we are surrounded primarily by old technologies, whose roles in our everyday lives are fundamental. This type of selective blindness—amplified by media—explains why in the 1950s one spoke of the Atomic Age, or why the interest in rockets at the time fuelled visions of space travel. The One Laptop Per Child project is a contemporary example.29 One might take exception with this claim by pointing out that people still pay attention to old technologies from the 19th and 20th centuries. But doesn’t this stem from the fact that once upon a time they represented the future?30
When we consider this picture from an historical point of view, we notice that the written history of technology is misleading. This is because instead of focusing on which technologies were actually used during which time periods, we tend to focus on new discoveries.31 The “history of discoveries” overshadows the “history of uses” and completely ignores the fact that used technologies have more testimonial value than discovered technologies because a relatively large amount of time passes before new technologies are used in practice.
As has been said, the novelty around us expands the field of possibilities. Discovery—new technology—represents this field of possibilities (uses), whereas actively used or successful technologies create the field of necessity.32 Possibility is too often confused with necessity. We somehow automatically expect that each and every new technology is bound to be successful. Fiction too often replaces reality. In 1944, George Orwell complained about the historical repetition of the concepts of “erasing distance” and the “disappearance of borders”—the same concepts new media was also supposed to use as mottos33 The question remains, why?
The essential feature of possibility is that it aims to the future. In a society whose rhetoric is focused on the future, possibilities become resounding arguments.34 Notice how the discourse of new media is oriented toward questions related to what all this new media enables. The question of how new media is actually used is always pushed to the periphery. For example, the possibility of communicating instantaneously with anyone on the planet—for how many of us is the use of this possibility a common practice? We live in communities, both local and interest-based, and new media strengthen them. The idea of the global village ignores the fact that we live in a physical space and tend to remain therein. If the fear of escape into a fictitious world was ever considered justified, the culprit was not new media or a computer-generated, artificial world, but rather the vision of a world made up of mere possibilities.
Isn’t this world and the “information society” in which we supposedly live the one and the same thing? If we dissect this label, which is partially accepted and partially criticized for its ideological basis, an in-depth analysis shows it to be minimally problematic. Frank Webster, who researched the main arguments for its use,35 came to the conclusion that most of the arguments are based on tautology and indiscriminate usage of the term “information.” He points out that it is often forgotten that the value of theoretical discourse is increased.
It cannot be ignored that this circumstance influenced the field of new media. The frequently criticized fetishistic implications only negligibly impacted ideology, which is mainly the product of new media theory and in no way falls short of what is happening in practice. A truly sincere effort to understand the world that new media has helped to create has collided with the factors described above. Overestimating the role of technology in socio-cultural changes and ignoring technological critiques has created an extremely distorted image of reality. Faith in technology and the possibilities it offers took on the unique appearance of “objective reality.” This phenomenon allowed itself to get swallowed up by its own interpretation,36 which created false expectations and baseless motivation.

Technology as a stance
“At worst we are at the mercy of technology, when we consider it to be neutral. This makes us blind towards it.” Martin Heidegger, The Question Concerning Technology.
So what then is the position of new media? Geert Lovink, who has asked the same question, arrived at the conclusion that new media will never be accepted by mainstream cultural institutions and art collectors.37 Such a claim is problematic from the outset in that it does not distinguish between two important approaches in art working with new media. In the first approach, the new media serve either as a mere means to an end and/or as a reflected topic or subject. This approach clearly did not have any problem in permeating the aforementioned artistic circles. Both galleries and collectors gradually accepted artists working with new media. Today their works are part of important collections and are shown regularly. This includes internet art as well, which is supposedly less acceptable.38 What is characteristic of these artists is that they do not push these (new) media to the forefront. Often they are only one of many media with which an artist works. Stated another way, artists do not understand new media to be a stance. This is, however, typical for the other approach to new media, i.e. with art, which mainly labels itself with the tag “new media art.”39
The objection that works of art using new media on a purely instrumental level are underrepresented in galleries lacks substantiation. One can read between the lines that this comes from the second approach, which pushes the medium to the fore. It is as if the quality of such art (or perhaps the fulfilling of gallery quotas?) should automatically stem from the non-critical acceptance of the media.
Can technology function at all as an artistic stance? We have already discussed what it is about new media that makes the technologies themselves attractive and how they distort the image of reality. The nature of this stance still remains hidden to us. According to Martin Heidegger, this is because the essence of technology is not technical.40 An all-encompassing relationship to the things around us is hidden behind today’s technology. Our approach to today’s world has not always been the same. It changed subtly with the shift from manual to machine labour, and this is when our relationship with nature changed from one of dependency to one of subjugation. According to Heidegger, the most obvious difference between a windmill and a hydro-power plant is that we no longer build powerplants into the river’s flow, but rather the river’s flow is built into the powerplant. This state, which Heidegger calls Gestell and for which “challenging forth” (Herausfordern) are typical, causes the bankrupting of authenticity. Ivan Blecha summarizes the philosopher’s opinion well: “Technology observes the world in a narrow optic and in return produces products that in turn can only be created in this optic. This shuts us into a false world of demands, which (technology) itself has brought into the world, into the series of installments, in its own interests and by no means in the interest of reality.”41
Heidegger’s critique of Gestell in no way implies a rejection of technology as such. Indeed, this is not even possible. He calls rather for an acknowledgement of this state and a detailed critique thereof. At least two activities are capable of doing so; anxiety (“a leaning toward nothingness”) and art, which can manipulate things so that they are kept closest to their original existential care..42
But the art identified with Gestell becomes a self-contradiction. New media art has thus fallen into the trap of technologism, a trap that Nam June Paik had already warned us about when he emphasized the meaning of art for life with technologies. It only remains to state that with the onset of the new media before us, the variety of aesthetics is already, and definitively, opening wide. The mapping of this trend will only clarify its features with time, after we have seen what survives. Ultimately, we might even realize that we have tried to understand new media with old terms.

1. It is necessary to consider that the labelling of new media art never fully took hold and did not (bring about) any limitations. Here the features digital, interactive, electronic and technological are all interchanged. Last but not least, it concerned the pairing of the words “art” (or “culture”) and “technology”, or the mere emphasis on that which is media as being a priori new. The trend of extracting oneself from such designated positions, or even the silencing of protagonists of this approach, is hard to miss. For example, Armin Medosch notes in his article, “Good Bye Reality! How Media Art Died But Nobody Noticed” (2006) on the Berlin festival, Transmediale, notes that the label “media art” was omitted in the subtitle to this work.
2. Lovink, Geert: New Media, Art and Science: Explorations beyond the Official Discourse. In: Scott McQuire/Nikos Papastergiadis (ed.), Empires, Ruins + Networks, University of Melbourne Press, Melbourne, 2005.
3. Interview with Alessandro Ludovico, “Italian Hacktivism: Theory, Practice and History” (2008) .
4. Interview with Andreas Broeckmann, “Contemporary New Media Art” (2007) <>; Kera, Denisa. 2006. “Od konspirace k emergenci: Umělecké vizualizace a estetika databází” (From Conspiracy to Emergency: Artistic Visualisation and the Aesthetic of Databases), pg. 36–39 In Flash Art (Czech & Slovak Edition) Vol. I, No.1.
5. See interview with Alessandro Ludovico.
6. Rišková, Mária. 2008. “Agónia a extáza umenia nových médií” (The Agony and the Ecstasy of New Media Art), In Flash Art (Czech & Slovak Edition) Vol. II, No. 9.
7. Giddens, Anthony. 1990. The Consequences of Modernity. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
8. Krasnodębski, Zdzisław. 2006. Zánik myšlenky pokroku. (The Disappearance of the Idea of Progress), Červený Kostelec: Pavel Mervart, pg. 23.
9. Ibid, pg. 108.
10. Ibid, pg. 110.
11. Giddens 1990, pgs. 37–38.
12. Ibid, pgs. 16–17.
13. Ibid, pgs. 18–19.
14. Ibid, pg. 148.
15. Prokop, Dieter. 2005. Boj o média. (The Fight for Media), Prague: Karolinum, pg. 317.
16. Lasch, Christopher. 1979. “The Narcissistic Personality of Our Time” Str. 31–51 In: The Culture of Narcissism. W.W. Norton.
17. Volek, Jaromír. 2002. “Nezamýšlené důsledky ‚komunikační ideologie‘ v kontextu informační společnosti” (The Unintended Consequences of „Communication Ideology“ in the Context of Information Society) In: Média a realita. (Media and Reality) Brno: Masaryk University in Brno, pg. 24.
18. In 1995 the publishing house, MIT Media Labu, published Nicholas Negroponte’s book, Being Digital, in which he labels bits as the new atoms.
19. Volek 2002, pg. 18.
20. Ibid, pg. 16.
21. Gehlen, Arnold. 1972. Duch ve světě techniky. (Spirit in the World of Technology), Prague: Svoboda, pg. 39.
22. Specifically in the field of internet, individuals – those who brought forth unique ideas that they successfully developed both commercially (Apple, Google, Napster) and non-commercially (Linux, torrent, wiki or the WWW itself) – are marginal albeit noticeable exceptions to these rules. These are, however, myth-creating exceptions, whose shelf-lives originate from our tendency to connect conquests of great importance with the stories of individuals.
23. Through this same gate we look not only at the past – how many visions of the future base themselves on significant scientific-technical discoveries?
24. Slack, Jennifer Daryl – Wise, J. Macgregor. 2002. “Cultural Studies and Technology” Pg. 485–501. In: The Handbook of New Media. Sage, pg. 487.
25. American media theoretician, Neil Postman, is the author of this techno-determinist comparison.
26. Tribe, Mark –Reena, Jana. 2006. New Media Art. Köln: Taschen.
27. Slack –Wise 2002, pg. 488.
28. Edgerton, David. 2006. The Shock of the Old. Technology and Global History Since 1900. London : Profile Books.
29. The aim of Nicholas Negroponte’s project is to provide schoolchildren in developing countries notebooks manufactured at very low cost. The naiveté of this project takes on very sharp contours when compared with the most important medical discoveries of the 20th century. One of these, according to Adam Hart-Davis, was the flushable toilet, which radically lowered child mortality and the danger of infectious diseases. However, the media is understandably much more interested in the notebook.
30. Edgerton 2006, pg. 38.
31. Ibid, pg. xii.
32. Necessary, that is, already-used technology is no longer understood to be new, and so it gets lost on the horizon of interest, as Edgerton pointed out.
33. As early as the 19th century railways were meant to pave the path to world peace and international understanding. Henry Ford generally attributed this potential to communications and transportation technologies. H.G. Wells believed on the other hand in aviation.
34. Henri Bergson says on his vision of the future: “The idea of a future filled with endless possibilities is more fertile than the future itself. Therefore one finds more beauty in hope than in property, in dreams than in reality.” He connects it with the feeling of joy, which “at its lowest level imitates the orientation of our spiritual states toward the future.” Bergson, Henri. 1994. Čas a svoboda. O bezprostředních datech vědomí. (Time and Freedom. On Immediate Dates of Cognition), Prague: Filosofia, pg. 17.
35. The arguments are based on changes in the social order, culture, economy, technological character and types of employment. Webster, Frank. 2002. “The Information Society Revisited” Pgs. 22–33 In: The Handbook of New Media. Sage.
36. Vopěnka, Petr. 1989. Rozpravy s geometrií. (Debates on Geometry) Prague: Panorama.
37. Lovink 2005.
38. The onset of art’s dematerialisation with the new media art is one of this discourse’s favourite myths.
39. Rišková 2008.
40. Heidegger, Martin. 2004. “Otázka techniky” (Technology Questions) pgs. 7–35 In: Věda, technika a zamyšlení. (Science, Technology and Contemplation) Prague: Oikoymenh.
41. Blecha, Ivan. 2007. Proměny fenomenologie. (Transformations in Phenomonology) Prague: Triton, pg. 231.
42. Ibid, pg. 233.

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