Wednesday, March 17, 2004

On interconnections of art, science and technology

I first read MUTE magazine in 1997 and have been hooked ever since. I posted on Luciana Parisi's fascinating article last month, but since the rest of the issue won't be online until the next issue comes out, I thought I'd share a few of the articles that I keep thinking about.

In Abort, Retry, Fail, Simon Ford looks at early computer art - as it resurfaces through projects like CACHe, DAM and others - and some of the tensions between artists and technologists. In contrast to seminal, and largely utopian, British exhibitions like 1968's Cybernetic Serendipity, Ford writes:

The benign nature of computers and their manufacturers was always fiercely contested, not just amongst defenders of humanistic values but also amongst the most radical members of the counter-culture. Take for example Robert Smithson in 1969 who was invited by the MIT Center for Advanced Visual Studies to take part in the US section of the Sao Paulo Bienale. He eventually withdrew stating that: 'To celebrate the power of technology through art strikes me as a sad parody of NASA. I do not share the confidence of the astronauts. If technology is to have any chance at all, it must become more self-critical.'

Ford also points out that at a time when the cost of computing was prohibitive, and access was limited, collaborations between artists and technologists almost always required the sponsorship of big business. Along these lines, Andrew Pickering also takes an interesting look at cybernetics as science, technology, art, entertainment and business in The Tortoise Against Modernity (pdf), as well as at the work of Ross Ashby, Stafford Beer and Gordon Pask in Cybernetics and the Mangle (pdf).

Ford continues to question the potential of such collaborations by calling on the Situationist Raoul Vaneigem, who wrote on technology and its mediated use:

By laying the basis for a perfect power structure, the cyberneticians will only stimulate the perfection of its refusal. Their programming of new techniques will be shattered by the same techniques turned to its own use by another kind of organization. A revolutionary organization.

In Museum Epidemiology, Betti Marenko "considers the possibilities for art to subvert techniques of science without being contaminated by them." In last year's CleanRooms exhibit at the London Natural History Museum, artists - including the Critical Art Ensemble, Brandon Ballengée and Gina Czarnecki - engaged some of the ethical issues associated with biotechnology, but Marenko asks:

Can the mere act of site swapping - from the labs to the gallery - induce a shift in the signification of standard operations? The use of standard lab practices in art replicates the rhetoric of pro and contra that afflicts the biotech debate. This self-reinforcing, ultimately misleading dilemma raises moral questions whose resistance to resolution is indeed well appreciated by the corporate state and which diverts critque away from processes of production and consumption of biotech.

So where does that leave us? In Just Sugaring the Pill?, Miria Swain asks:

Rather than sci-art, why not simply a case of science genuinely interested in art, or art informed by science? ... Sci-art, it would seem, has become a victim, like sci-fi, of the institutional snobberies and intellectual elitism that plague both art and science worlds. The idea that science and art can somehow meet on common ground - that scientists can speak the same language as artists and vice versa - often entails compromise and more often than not it is the art that gets compromised. Where art is subordinate to science, it does not challenge scientific hierarchy but reinforces it by suggesting that the only successful projects are those in which art becomes science.

All I will add to this is that our current socio-technological imbroglios call for the same thing Robert Smithson advocated thirty-five years ago: greater critical awareness on the part of science and technology. Without it, we remain at the mercy of our machines.

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