Provoking digitality: source code and efficiency
2 March 2012
Art is innovation in its rawest sense. From this we
might also abandon the idea of genius and readily admit that art is
the orchestration of aesthetics, ideas and contexts by the
multitude. Anyone can do it and some people do it better. When we
add digital equipment, we not only gain a connection with networks
and distribution, we also acquire a subjugation of subject as
content. So, we can argue that one of the consequences of the
mechanisation of language, in performing digital distribution, is
an acquisition of a language game or set of ways to describe a
process, so that it falls within a database or system of management
(content management system). This separation of the container from
the content, provides opportunities for transgression but at the
same time delimits the creative force of the whole thing. The thing
in itself. Commentators such as Lev Manovich, notably in 'Database
as Symbolic Form', have observed that 'new media', such as the
Internet, favour database over narrative forms such as the novel or
movie. He further unpicks the inter-relationship between database
and algorithm in gaming, where the introduction of 'database logic'
gives the player or user the experience of moving through a set of
problems that can be solved (as if in the real world).
Of course we know it to be true that it is possible to build a network of roads, for example on an industrial estate, without first building the factories or having any idea of the products or things that will be made in them. In digitality, the virtual factories can be filled with 'assets' over which a finite set of outcomes may be performed randomly or with agency using a set of algorithms. The more complex the algorithm and the more able the system is to respond to variables, determines the granularity or discreteness of the end data and experience. Some of the most contended and useful algorithms lie in this area, in terms of the push and pull of media. We observe that not all algorithms have to be in the service of commerce or the corporate model, they may be used creatively or for aesthetic purposes.
Hardt and Negri say that, "the multitude not only uses machines and materials but also becomes increasingly machinic itself, as the means of production are increasingly integrated into the minds and bodies of the multitude." Digitality takes this one step further in breaking down the conceptual process into an object model. In doing so the practice of innovation can be discretely formulated into stages such as engineering, coding, networking and styling or reskining. The final stage is a product - a website, a smart phone or an intelligent fridge. These design pathways are often anti-pathetic to traditional or experimental models of art-making, as the end goal of digital equipment design is often efficiency. Of course artists might set out to be organised or indeed chaotic in their working processes but are not generally 'efficient' as an end goal. In this respect being innovative in making a piece of art seems different to being innovative in building a smart phone or app to run on it. The artist has an accept or reject association with aesthetics, materials, ideas and contexts (that of course may flow in or out of the digital space), while the engineer or designer works increasingly to the object model - prototype, iteration, sample, product. We can see that through choices, skills, division of labour and the object model, allied with digital equipment, an incredible extension of what is possible can be forged.
Taking two well known examples of creative works from recent history, we can begin to interrogate some of these arguments further. The Toy Story trilogy arises out of the extraordinary creativity of John Lasseter and is arguably the most distinctive mass media digital artwork of the last 20 years. Evaluating its production methodology, we find not only digital processes but a vast array of human talent at work. Writers, animators, voice-over artists and sound designers. This is a collective and networked phenomenon lauding the producer model, drawing together individual creativity and mass data processing. According to Entertainment Weekly, the first Toy Story film consisted of 160 billion pixels and took 800,000 machine hours to crunch. John Cage's 4' 33" can be performed by any number of musicians with any instruments, the only rule being that they may not play them. The consequence, and well know controversy, surrounding Cage's work is that the set of noises that occur during each rendition of it are unique and different (and based on each environment). The effect of the work is to dematerialise the composer and the composition, placing the listener at the point of authorship and proximity to indeterminacy. It is a staging of a concert environment with the specific purpose of making the listener confront aesthetic assumptions - exactly the same as if they were the artist.
Both 4' 33" and Toy Story return us to thinking about time and motion. Assessing them both in terms of efficiency we can say that Pixar's technology and distributed network have enabled movies to be made with less animators than a traditional Disney hand drawn animation and at less cost. With Cage's work we can say that the production model is irrelevant as chance is located as the primary form.
What we are saying is that art is not efficient most of the time but it can be subjected to machine processes and digital equipment with the effect of increased extension. In this respect we are acknowledging that extension or distribution increase the efficacy of its uptake but this in itself is not artistic innovation. Art can be experimental and uncommercial. Or the other way round.