Olga Goriunova on Fri, 24 May 2002 23:52:43 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> artistic software for dummies

dear all,

i hope you might be interested in the following text that was published in
read_me 1.2 CD&book in an occasion of the first international software art
festival read_me 1.2, moscow 2002


Artistic Software for Dummies and, by the way, Thoughts About the New World Order.

Olga Goriunova, Alexei Shulgin

What is artistic software?

Artistic software is, first and foremost, software created for purposes
different than traditional pragmatic ones. Such programs are not seen as
tools for the production and manipulation of digital objects - from online
bank accounts to works of art - they are works of art in their own right.
The emergence of this phenomenon is first of all due to the overall spread
of software - commercial, proprietary programs as well as open source -
and its introduction into all spheres of human activity. Software has
always been seen as a neutral tool, tending to become a transparent medium
for information processing, and a most comfortable one at that. Software
and the products created with its help have always been considered not
only to belong to totally different areas but even to be non-comparable.
In most cases, an individual piece of software is thought to be completely
interchangeable with a competing product without any effect on the result.
Such an approach assumes several stereotypical and false premises. First,
software is not a "transparent" tool for the creation and processing of
the digital product. It defines a quite limited space, within a specific
framework in which people are required to work. Thus it persistently
forces people to keep to certain, pre-defined rules. In addition to the
limitations of using computer programs there is also a certain
predetermined position - a creative, social, even political one - into
which the software user is put, not so much by the software's creators,
but by more general power structures: the culture of software creation and
media culture as a whole. And this, in turn, depends on the dominant
social rules, which will be touched upon in this article. More and more
people are finding these limitations not only uncomfortable but also
boring and authoritarian. Second, the overall "digitalisation" of reality
makes software, the basis of the functioning of digital space,
increasingly important as such.

Rationality and Western civilization

The general and recently accelerating change in the world moves toward its
deeper rationalisation.  The forms, the methods of functioning of the
society are all becoming extremely technologised. All means of functioning
of the digital world - networks, software and even design are being
created in accordance with notions of the rational basis of the universe
and are the highest representation of the Western idea - the domination of
the Reason.  The history of Western civilization is, among other things,
the history of human alienation, the history of rationalisation, the
history of the loss of the mystical. The changes in the notion of
Knowledge as the basis of progress can represent this history in the
simplest terms. Up until the Middle Ages, knowledge was interwoven with
magic, mysticism and religion. It was not considered, as it commonly is
today, as something purely abstract which could nevertheless have
practical applications. Knowledge could not be transmitted solely on the
theoretical level, outside of ritual practice. It was transmitted only
through personal and full communication of the chosen with the chosen.
Even "crafts skills" knowledge could not have been acquired within just a
couple of years. Knowledge was not detached from other forms of life. The
situation starts to change during the Renaissance: gradually the
theorisation of knowledge begins; knowledge separates itself from
mysticism and religion and acquires high autonomous status. By the end of
the XVII century the final break of knowledge from other forms of life is
taking place.  The history of rationalisation is the history of the
diminishment of the leading role of religion, the history of exclusion of
morality from all spheres except maybe that of the "life world"
(Lebenswelt).  Catholicism has introduced rationalised relations between
man and God (indulgence); Protestantism has rejected ancient rituals and
their traditional visual attributes and became the peak of the religious
rationality, logically progressing to "humanistic" atheism.  Gradually
science took the place of religion. And science oriented itself towards
the cognition of nature by defining nature in terms of matter's lack of
inherent value and metaphysical attributes. Examining nature as an
infinitely reusable object, science began to apply the same notions to the
human being. Thus all scientifically unverifiable truths and meanings
could neither be supported nor refuted by all-prevailing Reason.

What now?

- Science, having finally broken away from all its once inherent
metaphysical goals, is becoming, by analogy with extreme sport, an extreme
science, endangering the very existence of human beings on earth (nuclear
and bio-technologies, overall penetration of technology and its use as a
means of control over the human being).

- The highly rational way of life in such societies as the US, can go out
of whack from time to time: one of the most convincing examples lies in
the events of the 11th of September 2001. The growing conflict between
East and West - which can be seen as a conflict between an extremely
rationalised western society and the metaphysically oriented eastern one -
presents one of the most obvious dangers for the current world order.

 Culture as content

 The type of the society in which the citizens of "developed" countries
are living has been called informational for a long time already. The
system of such societies, accordingly, is utterly different from the
preceding industrial one, which was centered around industrial production.
Post-industrial society is ruled not by commodity-money relations but by
informational currents. Or, rather currents of capital and power that are
spreading (and to a large extent in the form of open or veiled propaganda)
through networks, in accordance with new laws.

 All means and media by which such societies function - networks,
computers, software and even design - are extremely technologised and are
created in accordance with the notion of the rational basis of the

 Culture and its manifestations are also turning into information (and
even "content"), flowing into information space. Just like any other
information, cultural information can be digitalised. With its shift into
computer space, culture begins to function by the same rational rules
according to which the rest of the system works - by the rules created, in
particular, by designers and programmers.

 The methods of information presentation, storage and functioning, often
define its content as well. In so far as there is no place for metaphysics
within information space, the space towards which all spheres of public
and personal life are moving, the mode of this space's being is
particularly rational - culture as the custodian of the non-rational
inevitably becomes sterilized in such space. Morality and "life world" -
for a long time and very consistently too - have been being rationalised
under the civilization processes. Within the digital environment this
process yet intensifies. Existing in the digital realm, human beings are
following its logic - the extra-ethical logic of the machine.

 Art as the custodian of the non-rational

 Art is one of the most mobile and diverse systems; it has been changing continuously to the extent that it contradicts itself. It would be interesting, then, to look at the change in the artist's social role:

- Ancient times. There is no artist yet as such - she is an ordinary
member of the society, additionally performing some religious functions.
Her work is based exclusively on tradition, her name is not announced, the
results of her work are part of the mystical ritual.

- The epoch of Renaissance and Humanism: the artist is breaking from the
religious tradition and begins to glorify the beauty of the human and of
the surrounding world. The figure of the self-manifesting Genius appears
on stage.

- The Technological epoch: The beauty of the world becomes easily
reflectable through technical reproduction media. At the same time the
ideals of humanism decline - as a consequence of technological progress as
well. On one hand, art begins to reflect the crisis of human
self-consciousness (modernism), and on the other, it gets diverted into a
certain form of commercial activity. Works of art turn into commodities,
an extensive art-market is created (there appears, in particular, a notion
of "the original"). During the preceding, humanistic epoch, the artist was
placed very high in society (artist: demiurge, poet: the ruler of people's
minds). Therefore, on the new technological level she begins to actively
participate (and be used) in the political struggle.

 The Communication epoch

 With the development and fundamental change of communicative space the
role of the artist is changing again. Artist is not someone who creates
images anymore; she rejects the idea of representation.
 Information overload becomes a common illness. An infinite number of
images have already been created; they are kept in unerasable digital form
in readily accessible databases. On the whole, the existing culture can
already be represented as information currents that surround people and
constantly try to penetrate their minds.
 The artist's mission now shifts from creating images to manipulating and
redirecting information currents. The artist becomes, on one hand, the
information filter, and on the other, its re-transmitter.
 This new role of the artist, then, in many ways becomes linked with the
functions of communication and computer technologies: her activity is
performed by means of networks and computers. The difference is that
computers work on the basis of "bare" algorithms, while humans apply
intuition, emotions and other non-rational elements - exactly those
qualities that are beginning to disappear due to the influence of
technology that makes everyone work rationally.  Thus design of networks,
databases, computers and software becomes defining factor in modern
culture. Software and computers tend to be seen exclusively as pragmatic
tools for information processing; programmers are usually exceptionally
pragmatic people whose rational side often prevails over all others.
Therefore, the artist has to confront pragmatism with the methods she is
well acquainted with, based on intuition and non-rationality.  Thus,
artistic software appears.

 How does software art save non-rationality?

 One might ask, "How can software art be non-rational, if rational
algorithms are what lies at its basis?"
 Yes, at the basis of each piece of software there are definite
algorithms, but if conventional programs are instruments serving purely
pragmatic purposes, the result of the work of artistic programs often
finds itself outside of the pragmatic and the rational.
 Because the process of the digitalisation of culture and other components
of social life is inevitable, it is necessary to consider adequate ideas
and mechanisms for the transfer of those spheres into digital space, to
find adequate conditions for their functioning within networks. How can we
put forth such mechanisms, those which would preserve the remaining grains
of the non-rational and metaphysical, those which could guarantee the
safety of the society and protect it against further rationalisation?
Artistic software, non-rational software, perhaps gives some answers to
this question.
 Appendix. Most common characteristics of artistic software:
- irony 18%
- addressing political and social issues 10%
- interface prevailing over functionality 20%
- deconstruction 16%
- non-rationality 25%
- other 11%
 (data for the beginning of 2002)

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