Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
July 19, 2000
Peter Lunenfeld Snap to Grid: A User’s Guide to Digital Arts, Media, and Cultures MIT Press, 2000. 240 pp.; 41 b/w ills. $32.95 (026212226X)
Peter Lunenfeld, ed. The Digital Dialectic: New Essays on New Media MIT Press, 1999. 298 pp.; 0 color ills.; 50 b/w ills. Paper $17.95 (0262122138)

It is no coincidence that many of the new theorists of technology and telesis are based in California—ever on the edge of tomorrow, but also host to the primary commercial market for digital imagery: the movie industry. The hybrid members of the digerati can present different faces to the world depending on the venue: artist, theorist, computer scientist, professor, robotics engineer, program designer, or supplier. A hefty cadre of these transprofessionals work and think from the San Francisco Bay area, a McLuhan unit’s distance away from the throbbing belly of the media beast, yet still proximate to vassal lords such as Marin County’s George (“Star Wars”) Lucas, and major fiefdoms such as Lucas’s Industrial Light and Magic. There’s nothing like capital to make visual culture seem compelling, and thus the vaguely named entity “new media” art has curators and historians of contemporary art scrambling to make sense of it all.

Into this confusing stew, Peter Lunenfeld offers himself as a Ciceronian guide. Imposing his own critical distance by dint of hard work and an academic buffer zone, Lunenfeld runs the Institute for Technology and Aesthetics (what once would have been called the “computer art lab”) at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. He is also the founder of a collective “New Media Working Group” called mediawork, whose membership is local and restricted to Southern California (atypically in this dispersed telecommuting age).

Of the two books reviewed here, Lunenfeld’s anthology Digital Dialectic paradoxically presents the stronger thesis and the most unified p.o.v. The emerging consensus among the largely SoCal thinkers at the conference that produced this book is that the gridded, binary logic of computing, from Leibniz and Descartes to the raster-bound present, can be seen as the very template for our productive, dialectical ambivalence about technology. All the hype about the anarchic, neodemocratic and cultural potential of cyberspace (flows of free art, free poetry, free music—what we might see as the 1 or “on” position) finds its necessary counterweight in the bleak military-industrialist underpinnings of the Net’s invasive surveillance structure (the zero sum game of Norbert Weiner’s cybernetics, explicitly linked to wartime command, control, and communication systems). But ever since pottery and plows, technological innovation has been fed by military initiatives. Even Leonardo (under whose aegis this book is published in MIT’s series of the same name) sandwiched his art between designs for missile-launching devices and tools for navigating in hostile seas. What we need are artists and theorists up to that standard, if not in terms of production, at least in terms of interpretive sophistication about the forces manipulating our drive toward virtuality.

For artists and art historians scanning the emerging cultural landscape of these information technologies, Lunenfeld’s books are useful and accessible, if partial, guides. There can be no doubt that the time-honored episteme of creation/reception (vexed though it has always been by the hermeneutic tradition) is fast evolving into an economy of servers and users that begs for our interpretive energies. In Digital Dialectic, Lunenfeld provides several useful introductions to themes from the original conference, writing with a laid-back, loping humor blissfully free of the Derridean intensity that often freights technoanalysis. The contributors he assembles don’t always share his p.o.v., but their range is impressive: English professors, philosophers, new media publishers, artists, and the fluid new entity “new media theorist” (evolving in most cases from film historians of yore). While the book as a whole seems to propagate a kind of neoformalism (suggested by the thesis metaphor of binary logic feeding a digital dialectic), this structural approach helps neophyte analysts of this emerging visual culture grasp historical parallels at their roots. Contributor Lev Manovich, for example, traces the links between pre-cinematic optical toys (Thaumatrope, Zootrope, Viviscope, etc.) and digital cinema—each based on systems of bytes and loops, yet not strictly comparable to the indexical, reality-based analogue protocols of lens-exposed celluloid film. N. Katherine Hayles situates virtuality differently, in the chilling discourse of information theory; in passing she provides the kind of useful chart that often crops up when theorists try to structure new patterns of use and belief. Hayles’s map pits postmodernism against virtuality, and although it will be traumatic for many to learn that postmodernism has now hit the dustbin of history, her binaries give good pedagogy: from postmodernism’s defining dialectic of presence and absence (or, perhaps more accurately, representation and simulation), she charts virtuality’s obsession with pattern and randomness, for postmodernism’s capitalist logic of possession she juxtaposes virtuality’s grail of access. Whether we have indeed left postmodernism or whether that episteme was ever coherent enough to be seen as “over,” Hayles’s analysis is thought-provoking; she concludes with speculations regarding new subjectivities (from oral subject, to written subject, to virtual subject) that should stimulate our research into art of the present that speaks in the future tense.

Not all of this makes sense, and not all of it will be useful for the day to day pedagogical and research tasks of CAA members. But anyone teaching contemporary studio practices or the oxymoronic “history of contemporary art” will want, for example, to check out Finnish theorist Erkki Huhtano’s “archaeology of interactivity,” and follow its threads into Digital Dialectic’s useful recommended reading list. Art historians of the postwar period in particular will find much that connects earlier vexings of the “creation/reception” model of art making with the newer utopian strains of the “server/user” model—in addition to Huhtano and Manovich’s useful historical linkages, one can draw one’s own conclusions from Michael Heim’s philosophical essay, and Florian Brody’s redolent “The Medium is the Memory.”

Fans of Lunenfeld’s skills as an editor and brief essayist may be disappointed by Snap to Grid. Boldly subtitling itself as a user’s guide, it reads instead as a desultory wander through some random topics that caught Lunenfeld’s curious critical eye. As he notes sheepishly in his own introduction, “I claim that this book constitutes a user’s manual for digital arts, media, and cultures, but should admit that it really constitutes a guide to this user’s experiences” (xxi). Such situated criticism can be a bold and beautiful thing, but this reader yearned for some powerful overarching thesis—less reportage purporting to be inclusive, and more frankly argumentative and broadly critical brief.

Snap to Grid is great sociologically, however. What it lacks in critical focus it more than gains in Geertzian “thick description.” Aligning itself implicitly with Donna Haraway’s important call to anchor the rhetoric of virtuality in the “meat” of actual production, Lunenfeld gives the reader a white-knuckle tour of the “demo or die” ethos on the tradeshow floor, where “vaporware” is performed to get the commitment of capital (or an art school job) that will support the realization of the technoartist’s true ambitions. The “Cultures” section of Snap to Grid is rich in such evocations of cyber-demimondes, and contributes mightily to the book’s richness in apercçus, to say nothing of its delirious digijargon about the “Entertainment/Industrial Complex”: “gearheads” struggle with “unstable platforms,” experience “technoanxiety,” feel guilty about “electropeasantry,” face “option paralysis,” produce “push media,” and are seduced by “rasterbation” and “technodildonics.” Whether such an obvious subcult mentality is emerging to influence visual culture on a broader scale is the big question for artists and art historians. Lunenfeld’s final section provides some arguments on the plus side.

This final section of Snap to Grid engages with specific productions by selected media artists, and ultimately is the most rewarding part of the book. The author’s background in film studies is evident in his quirky (for art historians) choice of Hollis Frampton to begin this genealogy. Art historians want to know how Frampton’s majestic film cycle, which Lunenfeld beautifully analyzes, might link to other kinds of artists—how, for example, Frampton’s work might draw on his intense early relationship with Frank Stella and Carl Andre, or how a shared trajectory of formalism into minimalism might have generated some aspect of Frampton’s “perfect machine.” The methods of art historians could also help Lunenfeld contextualize his useful analyses of new media artists such as Diana Thater, Gary Hill, or Perry Hoberman—either in more extensive discussions of these artists’ overall oeuvres, or in deeper social histories of their cohorts, regional “users,” and strategic alliances.

Caveats aside, both Lunenfeld books make for satisfying reading. The pressure to get news of the “emergent media culture” into print is so great that there’s a rushed and breathless quality to much new media writing, but perhaps the unrushed art historical gaze could buy these authors more time to let their insights ripen into arguments, and their observations into analysis. Meanwhile, buckle up and enjoy the ride.

Caroline A. Jones
Art History Department, Boston University