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<nettime> Interview with Peter Lunenfeld
geert lovink on 31 Jul 2000 15:41:51 -0000

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<nettime> Interview with Peter Lunenfeld

Enemy of Nostalgia, Victim of the Present, Critic of the Future
Interview with Peter Lunenfeld
By Geert Lovink

Peter Lunenfeld might not be introduced here, but I will do it anyway.
Peter is teaching in the graduate program in Media Design at Art Center
College of Design. He is director of the Institute for Technology &
Aesthetics (ITA), and is founder of mediawork: The Southern California New
Media Working Group. He lives in Los Angeles and is the author of "Snap to
Grid: A User's Guide to Digital Arts, Media, and Culture"(MIT Press, 2000)
which came out in April this year. "Snap to Grid" provides us with a broad
and accessible introduction into the topics of electronic arts and new
media culture.  Lunenfeld hardly ever addresses the insider. As a
contemporary cultural critic he manages to contextualize the somewhat
self-referential, isolated new media art works. A good example is his
essay "Demo or Die", included in the book (and the www.nettime.org list
archive). Peter Lunenfeld is also the editor of "The Digital Dialectic:
New Essays on New Media" (MIT Press, 1999), and writes "User," a column
for the journal art/text. He is editing Mediawork Pamphlets for the MIT
Press, "a collection of intellectually sophisticated, visually compelling
short works that will unite contemporary thinkers with cutting edge
graphic designers to create theoretical fetish objects." The first will
appear in 2001. This e-mail exchange, took place in the aftermath of a
series of public and private conversations in Los Angeles, early 2000. 

GL: What direction would you like to see new media culture go? 

PL: I don't think there's such a thing as a single new media culture.
There may have been a decade ago, but by now digital technologies have so
infiltrated advanced industrial societies that we have to speak of new
media cultures.. What I see today in all facets of cultural production is a
kind of ferocious pluralism. 

GL: The subtitle of your book is "A User's Guide to Digital Arts, Media
and Cultures." Imagine if someone were indeed to read it as manual for an
Internet startup? What recipes and tips do you come up with? 

PL: I can't say I wrote Snap to Grid (S2G) with the thought of someone
else taking it as a manual for a start-up, but that's provocative. So,
what might the entrepreneurially inclined get out of the book? For one
thing, they could get a deeper understanding of the aesthetics of demos,
of how to communicate in real time whatever it is they've invented, or
decided to bring to market. By running through some of the myths about
interactivity, connectivity and virtuality, S2G might help them craft
things and systems that people actually want. There's quite a bit in the
book that amounts to what I'd call "understanding now." I don't know if
understanding one's moment actually contributes to the bottom line and in
fact, it may be the exact opposite, with those who most willfully ignore
the present making the most money off of the future. Be that as it may,
S2G does try to discuss emergent technological aesthetics in the light of
the historical importance of the end of the Cold War. 

GL: Do you see any possibility of a critical art praxis and the
profit-driven network economy shaking hands? 

PL: Art and economics are symbiotic, even when they are seen to be in
opposition, so I can't see why a networked economy shouldn't spawn
networked art. I think that this is a fertile time for those with visual
skills to be handsomely remunerated for certain kinds of design work, to
take ideas, images and sounds and build products out of them, and even to
create lasting equity in commercial enterprises. On the other hand, I've
never thought that info-tech capitalist enterprises would enter into a
direct payment system for artists' personal explorations ­ except,
perhaps, as isolated public relations efforts -- much less support fully
politicized critique. Getting back to your earlier question, S2G offers a
way to think about culture in general after the wide spread of information
technologies. It strikes me that we are all forced to engage with vastly
broader ranges of reference than ever before, and that part of what we
expect from the next generation of digital appliances is precisely the
tools and methodologies to help us render meaning from the flux of
information. Artists working in these areas may well be able to shake
hands, as you say, with the dot com billionaires, but I'd recommend the
artists bring intellectual property attorneys along with them to the

GL: In one of the best parts of the book, "Demo or Die," you portray the
digital artist being crushed between their machines -- inherently unstable
digital platforms -- and their clients -- ruthless transnational corporate
capitalists. Instead of dismissing the demo as an unfinished attempt you
are arguing that "the demo has become an intrinsic part of artistic
practice."  Have the art establishment and their critics discovered this

PL: I think that artists understand better than one might assume the
intrinsic importance of the demo aesthetic today. As I note in S2G, the
demo is closely aligned with the "crit," that staple of art school
instruction in which students have to stand up and "defend" their work
with colleagues and instructors. The contemporary art world has been
dealing with the impermanence of performance for years, since at least the
Happenings movement of the 1960s. As for design culture, I think that the
expectation for commercial messages is so short that a demo aesthetic is
almost built in: if the message sells, it stays, if it doesn't, that
message is gone.  Commercial culture has always lived by the Oulipian
motto "prove motion by walking," even if the average advertiser could care
less about Parisian literary experiments. 

GL: Could we compare the status of the demo with, for example
advertisements and other commercial short films? What happened to web
design? And what will be the faith of the current Flash craze and their
demo artists? 

PL: I think that Web design calcified incredibly quickly, but that had a
lot to do with bandwidth-backwards compatibility. Once an entire
generation gets on-line with DSL or better connections form the home, I
think you'll see another surge in Web design. I'm usually not so
technologically deterministic about aesthetics, but in this case I think
that the linkage is so strong between vision and bandwidth that the
broadening of the pipe will bring about more design innovation. One of the
utopian hopes that we all had for Web design was that the huge number of
new voices entering the media would engender radical stylistic departures.
On the other hand, the fact that so many of them are new to visual
culture's rich and dense history means that too many of them are repeating
­ often pallidly -- other people's proven strategies and successes. Too
few Flash animators know enough about the history of animation beyond
Disney films and last year's motion graphics to sustain faith in anything
beyond the "new." I hope that S2G can remind people that it's not enough
to keep up with the tech, you truly have to love the art and its history
(even if that love turns rabidly Oedipal and you want to set out to
destroy all that came before you). 

GL: Criticism and texts in general could as well have reached a "concept
or die" level. Perhaps all texts are de facto hypertext, because they are
read as such. Could you talk about this disintegration into "nano

PL: Like almost everyone who comes out of any kind of sustained discursive
tradition, I'm wary of the ever more amorphous nano thoughts that fill the
infosphere. But I strive to see if there is something to do about this
besides keening for the lost era of 400-plus page books and well crafted
essays. The Latin rhetorical term, "multim-im-parvo" or much-in-little,
seemed to be one place to start. Like so many of my generation, I saw
myself as a rediscoverer of McLuhan in the 80s and 90s, after his fall
into obscurity in the 70s. He was fascinated by aphorisms, seeing them as
probes that the reader needs to unpack and as a vastly more active than
essays. It takes a sure hand to craft a compelling multim-im-parvo,
though, and as I note in the book, even McLuhan ­ who was a master ­
flopped at least as often as he soared. 

GL: You read this development in two ways: the first is the potential for
increased density, as demonstrated with the aphorism or directed slogan,
but the shadowside of this is the rise of vapor theory. Can you say
something about the danger of vapor theorizing and at what point texts
transform into neologism and sales talk? 

PL: The failed aphorism is only one small part of the overarching category
of what I came to call "vapor theory." Vapor theory is a gaseous flapping
of the gums about technologies, their effects and aesthetics, usually
generated with little exposure, much less involvement with those self-same
technologies and artworks. Vapor theory is one result of the historical
condition in which new media emerged. There was an almost fully formed
theoretical context for digital art and design even before they were fully
functional as media technologies. This certainly did not happen with film,
radio or television (though there are some parallels with artists' video
of the 60s and early 70s). The late 90s moment of overwhelming, and
overweening, hype for the Web seems at last to have subsided, so perhaps
that will temper the vapor theory as well. The increasing
institutionalization of "cyber-studies" may sustain vapor theory, though,
due to the ever-increasing velocity of academic job hunting and publishing
for advancement. 

GL: In your writings, body-centered bio science metaphors are remarkably
absent. Nor do you criticize them. 

PL: I'm one of the few people I know who doesn't want to live forever, so
the central attraction of bio-blather ­ immortality -- leaves me cold. I
don 't want to have an endless dialogue with Extropians and associated
noospheric hangers-on about the religious fervor that they bring to these
issues, nor have I been particularly impressed by the work that artists
have done in these areas. Too much of it falls into the "when we have the
tools, the work we'll make will be wonderful" school of mediocre art/tech.
I'm fascinated by what Matthew Barney is doing with biology in his
Cremaster films, but that's far removed from what you're asking me about.
Perhaps my relative silence in this area is simply intellectual modesty.
Just because digital technologies, about which I know something, have
moved into the bio-sciences, about which I know little, should I venture
cavalierly into this arena just for the pleasure of expressing an opinion? 

GL: You just mentioned "art/tech." Why do you think so many electronic
artists are fascinated by this "arts meet science" discourse?  PL: I'm
wary of the notion of the artist as research scientist prevalent in new
media circles. At conferences, I hear artists going on about how they are
now validated in their choice of art as a profession because scientists
and engineers respect their "research," and the fact that they are getting
money from Intel. This attitude is incredibly odd. Collegiality is a
wonderful thing, but in the final analysis, why should artists give damn
about what engineers think about them? This "scientific method" is growing
rapidly with the megaversity structure, in which artists who can create a
practice that apes the forms of scientific research get hired and funded.
They hire and fund others like themselves, and thereby build a peer
network to evaluate the "results" of their work. This has gone hand in
hand with the development of the arts practice-based Ph.D. in the UK and
other parts of Europe. Most artists have some sort of "research" component
to their own practice. But this research is generally only important as it
relates to the work to which it contributes. There are some, select
artists for whom the research is the work, but quite often they are
working within a specifically conceptual framework and what they tend to
explore ends up being the idea of research itself, rather than a specific
topic (a metacritical project that is more ontological than empirical). 

GL: Is this then just opportunism, an attempt to bring the artist to the
level of the so-called neutral laboratory engineer/inventor, in effect to
"increase" the perceived utility of art in an ever more technologized

PL: This gets straight to the heart of the matter: art can be "useful,"
but the glory of it as a sphere of cultural production is that it does not
have to be. Researchers and scientists are trained differently and have a
different set of expectations for their work - there is an expectation of
utility, and often of clarity (avoiding the detours of postmodern science
wars for a moment). This whole artist-cum-scientist confusion reminds me
of the 1980s when what we saw, especially in the United States, were
artists-cum-social workers. For every innovative effort like Tim Rollins
and KAOS there were a thousand dreary "community-based collaborative
projects"  that existed for one reason and one reason only: to get money
from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) or local funding agencies.
Originally, by putting in some vague pro-social rhetoric, artists could
get some support for the work they really wanted to do, but then they came
to see the funding scam as their whole reason for being. What began as
something of a scam turned into an entire aesthetic. Then, during the
"culture wars" of the late 80s and early 90s, conservatives in the U.S.
Congress neutered the NEA and this entire brand of practice died out ­
though now I see some of the same people who went after the social work
funding going after money and tech from hardware and software companies. 

GL: Now that we've covered some of the movements you don't like, what
about the ones you do? The 60s and 70s avant-gardes ­ in art, cinema and
literature --are very important to you. For decades, we have heard that
the avant-garde was dead. Has this category risen up and returned in the
figure of the digital artist? 

PL: I'm very careful about using the term avant-garde, even as I spend a
great deal of time looking at what other generations did indeed term
avant-garde art and media. The very phrase "avant-garde" needs to be given
a rest, like a good horse that has been ridden too hard for too long. When
stylistic and technical "advances" come from all spectra of digital media
production ­ commercial, artistic, scientific, academic, etc. ­ the notion
we have inherited of a singular, oppositional avant-garde serves little
purpose anymore. If our softwares, music videos, computer games and WAPs
are all to be termed "avant-garde," then that phrase has indeed been
reduced to a marketing phrase like "revolution." I do not see the digital
artist as being an avant-gardist in any classical sense of solidarity or
shared artistic destiny; and, in fact, too many mediocre talents have hung
on to just such exhausted tropes to support their own, weak brands of

GL: I like the way Snap to Grid treats 70s structuralist film as being of
central concern to contemporary media art. One chapter is devoted to the
work of Hollis Frampton. Do you see any continuity twenty five years
later?  Or similarities compared to current digital media developments? 

PL: I wrote about Frampton for a number of reasons. The first is simply
out of admiration for his life's work. He was able to meld rigorous art
practice with far ranging and vital theorizations of his media, from
photography to film to video to digital media. Like his contemporary, the
protean conceptualist Robert Smithson, and those who followed this path
like painter Peter Halley and video maker Gary Hill, Frampton offers
theoretical texts that are supported by, and support in turn, a body of
important artwork.  These kinds of artist's writings offer ways out of and
around the dead ends of too much mainstream, contemporary media theory.
One of the things that drew me to digital media in the 90s was that same
sense of artists creating the contexts and explications for their own
works, on listserves, in catalogues, on conference panels, and ­ perhaps
most of all ­ in bars around the world. 

GL: Can we talk about the preoccupation of new media theory with "the" 
future? One thing I've noticed about your writing is that it tends to be
encapsulated within existing reality. Is there such a thing as
"Californian dreaming" which would take us to yet unknown places? Is it
out of context to talk about and prototype media-driven utopias? Would
dreaming be the opposite of nostalgia? Is there only an intensification of
the present possible, and desirable? 

PL: I don't think I'm preoccupied with the future. I know I'm an enemy of
nostalgia, and I'm pretty sure I'm victim of an obsession with the
present.  My first "User" column for art/text magazine was called
"Permanent Present,"  and concerns the way in which ­ for all the hype ­
our visual culture is not that much different than it was in the mid-80s,
after the advent of the Mac' s GUI and the impact of Blade Runner's
retro-deco aesthetic. I happen to loathe the idea of "futurism" as a
discipline, and find myself much more interested in explicating "now"
rather than the "next." I prefer to encounter other people's fantasies of
mutable environments and interactive nanotech in science fiction rather
than science-fictionalized discourse. I tend to keep my daydreams to

GL: With Kodwo Eshun you are saying: everything still needs to be done.
What is the role of the critic in all of this? 

PL: I approach criticism as a way to elucidate that which I admire about
art rather than simply trying to fit it into a preconceived
straightjacket. I'd like to think that I've been able to explore that
ferocious pluralism I mentioned earlier which so characterizes our era.
This is disconcerting to those who pine for the certainties of movements,
schools, or avant-gardes that marched in lockstep, one after the other.
These days, you're on your own, it's up to the individual user to craft
his or her own frameworks. Part of the job of the critic is to offer
models for this process. 

GL: Let's go back to Californian dreaming. What about the specificities of
Southern California? Is there a critical mass of new media theorists,
artists and critics in LA-San Diego region? If so, how are they supporting
themselves, is it mainly through institutions? 

PL: Southern California has a tremendous wealth of resources for both the
creation and the investigation of visual culture, especially as that
visual culture becomes more involved with electronic, digital and
networked technologies. Southern California has three of the top five film
schools in North America (USC, UCLA, AFI); three of the top five places to
study animation (Cal Arts, UCLA and USC); three top rated architecture
departments (UCLA, USC, Cal Poly Pomona); the best independent
architectural school in North America (SCI-ARC); and North America's most
concentrated high quality training in design and the fine arts (including
Art Center, UCLA, CalArts, UCSD, UCI, Otis, and UCSB). All these
institutions are within driving distance of each other. There is,
therefore, already a body of visual intellectuals here ­ people making,
thinking about, and writing on visual culture. Even more, these
institutions and those who work in them are engaging ever more seriously
with the relationship between the technologies of media production and
their aesthetics. I founded mediawork: The Southern California New Media
Working Group back in '95 to enable theorists -- Lev Manovich, Norman
Klein, Phil Agre, Steve Mamber, Vivian Sobcheck and N.  Katherine Hayles ­
to come together with scientists ­Ken Goldberg, Danny Hillis, Paul
Haeberli, and Mike Noll; architects -- Tim Durfee and Marcos Novak ­ mixed
it up with curators like Carole Ann Klonarides; and graphic designers ­
including Rebeca Mendez and Somi Kim ­ shared a space with industrial
designers like Lisa Krohn and artists ranging from Bruce Yonemoto to
Jennifer Steinkamp to Diana Thater. LA is a place where you have to plan
spontaneous events, so it's both more complex and more rewarding to spark
such interactions. 

GL: In the context of discussing digital media, could we then speak of a
renaissance in Southern California? 

PL: Naissance, rather than renaissance, perhaps. When Richard Barbrook and
Andy Cameron wrote "The Californian Ideology," it was a bang-up analyses
of a certain brand of Silicon Valley techno-libertarianism and the mush of
ideologies offered up in the pages of WIRED (remember when that magazine
mattered?). But for some of us who were working here, the tone of the
article rankled: "So far, the Californians have proved to be better at
making virtual machines than social analyses." This is a typical European
attitude ­ the New World makes, the Old World thinks. This is as
ridiculous coming from London as it would be from Paris (though I always
felt that Barbrook and Cameron had a better sense of humor about their
characterizations than did many of their readers, both in Europe and the

GL: You've talked in the past about the emergence of a SoftTheory in
Southern California. Can you explain what you meant by that? 

PL: SoftTheory attempts to build a methodology that critiques and
explicates the present and that grounds its insights in the limitations as
well as the potentials of these technologies. SoftTheory is the product of
and producer of a high electronic culture. It engages with popular culture
in all its forms, but does not attempt to become popular culture. It
builds a fluid discourse about visual culture that is broad but rigorous,
that has shared concerns but no totalitarian central meta-discourse. On
the other side, this is not a high electronic culture built entirely
around renunciation.  SoftTheory lives in, with and through these
technologies in a particularly immersive Californian way. We are not
deluded into thinking that 19th century analyses of industrial capitalism
are sufficiently supple to engage with the post-industrial, interconnected

GL: How exactly is SoftTheory particularly appropriate for the West Coast. 

PL: Let's go through the stereotypes again. If Paris thinks and New York
does (the French equation going back at least to de Touqueville), and New
York characterizes itself as hard charging while demeaning LA as laid back
(the popular image of SoCal crystallized by Woody Allen in Annie Hall),
then SoftTheory is a pointedly ironic term for what we are doing. It
allows us to preempt both the European criticisms of theoreticism and the
East Coast's condescension towards us as entertainment-addled victims of
the spectacle. I 'm hoping that a few years down the line, people realize
how remarkable the body of work coming out of Southern California is. In
addition to Heim's prodigious thinking on VR, Agre's monumental Red Rock
Eater news service, and Hayles's already renowned How We Became Post
Human, look for Sobchack's collection Metamorphing, and forthcoming
volumes from Manovich on the language of new media and Klein on scripted

GL: We've been talking about institutions in general, but how would you
program a digital Bauhaus today, what would it look like if you were to
open such a school? 

PL: I hope it would look like the department I'm already in. The Graduate
Program in Media Design at Art Center College of Design develops
professional design practice in the context of diverse media technologies. 
We investigate interactive design theory, tools, user experience, and
cultural context. While developing core design competencies, we try to be
flexible enough so that the curriculum responds to evolution in the field
and prepares students for careers of continuing innovation. It is a two
year program. During the first year, students engage with the history and
theory of new media in seminars, hone their production skills in studios,
learn directly from visiting designers and artists, and devote a large
percentage of their time to the Super Studio, a team-oriented group
project. During the second year, the seminars and studios are devoted to
more specific issues that dovetail with the students' own research
interests. The Super Studio serves as both preparation and model for the
student's individual master's project, facilitating a connection between
group and personal work. I'd like to think that the students will be able
to distinguish themselves as practitioners, visionaries, entrepreneurs,
and even design intellectuals.  That's what we've been building towards
for the past five years, in fits and starts. One of my contributions is to
try to keep the enthusiasm flowing. 

GL: How would you summarize your approach, then? 

PL: In the end, what I try to do in my classes, in writings like S2G, and
through public discourses like mediawork, is to combine the object and
artist specific discourses we inherit from the criticism and history of
art with the more systemic analyses that developed in the study of media
like film and television. When I was a kid, I read a series of tall tales
about a small town boy named Homer Price. In one story, a nefarious con
man came to Centerburg to sell an invisible powder that when sprinkled on
anything made it "ever so much more so" whatever you liked about it.
Donuts would taste ever so much more so like donuts, bikes would ride ever
so much more so like bikes, etc. (I was too young at the time to think
about its immediate application to sex, but that's another story). I
always loved that powder, even though, or perhaps precisely because, it
was bogus. Paul Foss, the publisher of art/text, has said that there is an
underlying theme of faith to my "User" columns ­ faith in art, faith in
faith, faith in something, even if as ineffable as the invisible powder.
Overall, my work runs counter to the nostalgia of both left and right. I
prefer to spend my critical capital figuring out what makes right now so
compelling. I am forever in search of the strategies, media and artists
who will make what I think of as our future/present "ever so much more

Peter Lunenfeld, Snip to Grid, MIT Press, 2000

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