Lev Manovich on Thu, 18 Apr 2002 19:14:37 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> GENERATION FLASH (2 / 3)

Lev Manovich
(2 / 3)

___________The Unbearable Lightness of FLASH___________ [ 1 ]



Flash artists are big on biological references. Abstract plants, minimalist
creatures, or simply clouds of pixels dance in patterns which to a human eye
signal ³life¹² (Geoff Stearns: deconcept.com, Vitaly Leokumovich:
unclickable.com, Danny Hobart: dannyhobart.com; uncontrol.com) Often we see
self-regenerating systems. But this is not life as it naturally developed on
Earth; rather, it looks like something we are likely to witness in some
biotech laboratory where biology is put in the service of industrial
production. We see hyper accelerated regeneration and evolution. We see
complex systems emerging before our eyes: millions of years of evolution are
compressed into a few seconds.

There is another feature that distinguishes life a la Flash from real life:
the non-existence of death. Biological organisms and systems are born, they
develop, and eventually they die. In short, they have teleology. But in
Flash projects life works differently: since these projects are loops, there
is no death. Life just keeps running forever ­ more precisely, until your
computer maintains Net connection.

Amplification: Flash aesthetics and Computer Games

Abstract ecosystems in Flash projects have another characteristic that makes
playing so pleasurable (Joel Fox). They brilliantly use the power of the
computer to amplify user¹s actions. This power puts a computer in line with
other magical devices; not accidentally, the most obvious place to see it is
in games, although it is also at work in all of our interactions with a
computer. For instance, when you tell Mario to step to the left by moving a
joystick, this initiates a small delightful narrative: Mario comes across a
hill; he starts climbing the hill; the hill turns to be too steep; Mario
slides back onto the ground; Mario gets up, all shaking. None of these
actions required anything from us; all we had to do is just to move the
joystick once. The computer program amplifies our single action, expanding
it into a narrative sequence.

Historically, computer games were always a step ahead from the general human
computer interface. In the 1960s and 1970s users communicated with a
computer using non-graphical interfaces: entering the program onto a stack
of punch cards, typing on a command line, and so on. In contrast since their
beginnings in the late 1950s, computer games adopted interactive graphical
interface ­ something that only came to personal computers in the 1980s.

Similarly, today¹s games already use what many computer scientists think
will be the next paradigm in HCI: active amplification of user¹s actions. In
the future, we are told, agent programs would watch our interactions with a
computer, notice the patterns, and then automate many tasks we do regularly,
from backing up the data at regular intervals to filtering and answering our
email. The computer would also monitor our behavior and attention level,
adjusting its behavior accordingly: speeding up, slowing down, and so on. In
some ways this new paradigm is already at work in some applications: for
instance, a Internet browser offers us the list of sites relevant to the
topic we are searching on; Microsoft Office Assistant trying to guess when
we need help. However, there is a crucial problem with moving to such active
amplification across the whole of HCI. The more power we delegate to a
computer, the more we lose control over what it is doing. How do we know
that the agent program identified a correct pattern in our daily use of
email? How do we know that a commerce agent we send on the Web to negotiate
with other agents the lowest price for a product was not corrupted by them?
In short, how do we know that a computer amplified our actions correctly?

Computer games are games, and the worst that may happen is that we lose.
Therefore active amplification is present in practically every game: Mario
embarking on mini-narratives of its own with a single move of a joystick;
troops conducting complex military maneuvers while you directly control only
their leader in Rainbow Six; Lora Craft executing whole acrobatic sequences
with a press of a keyboard key. (Note that in ³normal² games this
amplification does not exist: when you move a single figure on a chessboard,
this is all that happens; your move does not initiate a sequence of steps.)

Flash projects heavily use active amplification. It gives many projects the
magical feeling. Often we are confronted with an empty screen, but a single
click brings to life a whole universe: abstract particle systems, plant-like
outlines, or a population of minimalist creatures. The user as a God
controlling the universe is something we also often encounter in computer
games; but Flash projects also give us the pleasure of creating the universe
from scratch. 

The active amplification is not the only feature Flash projects share with
games. More generally, computer games are for Flash generation what movies
were for Wharhol. Cinema and TV colonized the unconscious of the previous
generations of media artists who continue to use the gallery as their
therapy coach, spilling bits and pieces of their childhood media archives in
public - for instance, Douglas Gordon. Flash artists are less obsessed with
commercial time-based media. Instead, their iconography, temporal rhythms,
and interaction aesthetics come from games (Mike Clavert: mikeclavert.com).
Sometimes the user participation is needed for the Flash game to work;
sometimes the game just plays itself (UTOPIA by futurefarmers.com;

Flash versus Net Art

Tirana Biennale 01 Internet exhibition: this title is deeply ironic. The
exhibition did not include any projects from Albany, or any other
post-communist East European country for that matter. This was quite
different from many early net art exhibitions of the middle of the 1990s
whose stars came from the East: Vuc Cosic, Alexei Shulgin, Olga Lialina.
1990s net art was the first international art movement since the 1960s that
included east Europe in a big way. Prague, Ljubljana, Riga, and Moscow
counted as much as Amsterdam, Berlin, and New York. Equally including
artists from the West and the East, net art perfectly corresponded to the
economic and social utopia of a new post Cold War world of the 1990s.

Now this utopia is over. The power structure of the global Empire has become
clear, and the demographics of Tirana Biennale 01 Internet section reflected
this perfectly. Many artists included in Tirana Biennale 01 Internet
exhibition work in key IT regions of the world: San Francisco (Silicon
Valley), New York (Silicon Alley) and Northern Europe.

What happened? In the mid 1990s, net art relied on simple HTML that run well
on both fast and slow connections ­ and this is enabled active participation
of the artists from the East. But the subsequent colonization of the Web by
multimedia formats ­ Flash, Shockwave, QuickTime, and so on ­ restored the
traditional West/East power structure. Now Web art requires fast Internet
connections for both the artist and the audiences. With its slow
connections, East is out of the game. The Utopia is over; welcome to the

(Tirana Biennale 01 did include one artist from China who contributed a
beatiful animation of martial arts fighters. But we never found who he was.
All we knew about him was his email address: zhu_zhq@sohu.com. Maybe he did
not even live in China.)


When I first visited the most famous Flash site ­ praystation.net ­ I was
struck by the lightness of its graphics. More quite when whisper, more
elegant than Dior or Channel, more minimal than 1960s minimalist sculptures
of Judd, more subdued than the winter landscape in heavy fog, the site
pushed the contrast scale to the limits of legibility. The similar lightness
and restrain can be found in many projects included in Biennale 01 show.
Again, the contrast with screaming graphics of commercial media and the
media art of the previous generations is obvious.

The lightness of Flash can be thought of as a visual equivalent of
electronic ambient music. Every line and every pixel counts. Flash appeals
to our visual intelligence - and cognitive intelligence. After the century
of RGB color which begun with Matisse and ended with aggressive spreads of
Wired, we are asked to start over, to begin from scratch. Flash generation
invites us to undergo a visual cleansing ­ this is why we see a monochrome
palette, white and light gray. It uses neo-minimalism as a pill to cure us
from post-modernism. In Flash, the rationality of modernism is combined with
the rationality of programming and the affect of computer games to create
the new aesthetics of lightness, curiosity and intelligence. Make sure your
browser have the right plug-in: welcome to generation Flash.

[PART 3 will be posted shortly.]


[1] Tirana Biennale 01 Internet section
(www.electronicorphanage.com/biennale) was organized by Miltos Manetas /
Electronic Orphanage. The exhibition consisted from a few dozen projects by
Web designers and artists, many of whom work in Flash or Schockwave. Manetas
comissioned me, Peter Lunenfeld, and Norman Klein to write the analysis of
the show. This text is my contribution; many ideas in it developed out of
the conversations the three of us had about the works in the show. The joint
text entitled ³KLM Theory² will be released soon. The names in brackets
below refer to the artists in the show; go to the show site to see their

I should also make it clear that many of the sites which inspired me to
think of ³Flash aesthetics² are not necessaraly made with Flash; they use
Shockwave, Javascript, Java, and other Web multimedia formats and scripting
languages. Thus the qualities I describe below as specefic to ³Flash
aesthetics² are not unique to projects made in Flash.

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