Essays (book reviews)

Culture, Technology and Creativity in the Late Twentieth Century
edited by Philip Hayward
(London: John Libbey & Company, 1991)


Although a name like Culture, Technology and Creativity in the Late Twentieth Century invites retitling as Life, the Cosmos and Everything, it is only fair to respect the Foreword that modestly presents the book as a “snapshot” of some of the relations between between art, culture and technology at the present time. This collection of original essays has a loose coherence, which is no bad thing: it addresses, variously, the vexed art-and-technology relation; the effects of new or high technologies (like stereo sound or computer imaging) on mass culture; and, much further down the monetary scale, funky guerilla-style artistic practices with technology’s leftovers, like Scratch Video, performance art and cyberpunk manifestations.


The art/technology angle is the most prominent one in the book, with pieces by a number of well-known practitioners and advocates in the area (Marga Bijvoet, Rebecca Coyle, George Barber, Jeremy Welsh, Paul Brown). As anyone who has ever read or heard any of the discussions in this sphere might expect, the same basic worry-beads get turned over in most of these articles. Are artists and scientists/engineers able to engage in proper dialogue and mutual collaboration? Is technological art just as good as old-fashioned art? If it is a new art, just what are the properties of this art? How much access will artists and creators at large be granted to new technological tools? The most anxious general question of all tends to be: should we be optimistic or pessimistic about the new technological age? And, sometimes only surreptitiously, between the lines, another niggardly doubt reveals itself: is the art/technology reverie only our latest massive delusion, a dream about to pass away?


Even if approached more neutrally as a present cultural condition (rather than a delusion), the art-technology scene has certainly come into being through a weird confluence of factors and influences: left-over ‘60s hippie tripdom; a new lease of life for post-object conceptual art; sci-fi-cyberpunk fantasias; and, of course, our already tired old friend, postmodernism. Actually, one of the sidebar attractions of this book is the crazy spectacle of postmodernism passing, quick as a flash, into the bad books of cultural theory – even though, for each writer, it seems to represent an enemy of a different colour. While Andrew Murphie persuasively rejects the “Postmodern delusion” of determinist global-media-space notions, Paul Brown mysteriously targets the “petulant absurdities” of Postmodernism-as-last-gasp-Romanticism, and editor Philip Hayward takes issue with Fredric Jameson’s influential characterisation of postmodernism as the empty production of perpetual mass cultural techno-novelty. I wonder if anyone, in six months time, will admit to having ever been into postmodernism?


The underlying optimism/pessimism dialectic of the book is fascinating. The more sober commentators (like Andy Darley in his excellent piece on computer imaging) warn against the strident tendency in the art/technology scene towards technophilia – the pure gee-whiz, faster-and-greater, I-love-machines, dawn-of-a-new-age celebration – and joins Tony Fry and Anne-Marie Willis in their reminders of the primarily military and industrial applications of most high-technological developments. The historical survey of the Art and Technology Movement provided by Marga Bijvoet is useful, too, in tempering the oft-heard fantasy that artists – those sweet, benevolent, visionary beings – will, any day now, just be unleashed on all that hi-tech equipment to make the world a better place (a refrain which reminds me a lot of the typical artists-and-architects seminar).


There are intriguing hesitations in the book about whether new forms of technologically-derived work are really art – and, more pointedly, if they have yet come up with much good art. Such terms are loaded, naturally, but it is hard to dodge the real questions they pose. Rebecca Coyle’s account of holographic art, for instance – which takes pains to separate vulgar commercial applications of holography from the work of artists like Paula Dawson – utterly fails to convince this reader that the genre is ever going to get much further than a few gimmicky, diagrammatic installations. Paul Brown, as mentioned, is happy to bucket probably all traditional art as outmodedly Romantic, but his Utopian vision of a future where we will be able to interact with existing movies and rearrange them to our will leaves me a little cold. Is Paul’s (or my) personal, ephemeral version of Touch of Evil (1958) likely to be any better than the one bequeathed to us by Orson Welles? This attitude appears democratic to Brown, but it does not seem very different to that of the dreaded colourisers who regard all old movies as raw material to be filtered and updated through the latest technological toy.


Jeremy Welsh and Philip Hayward both embrace (not without careful deliberation) the radical aesthetic newness of (respectively) advanced video art and commercial music video; but, interestingly, they both depend on, for their arguments, some very classical aesthetic standards and comparisons. Welsh presents the tape Milena’s Journey (by “Finland’s foremost video artist” Marikki Hakola) as a triumph of lyrical, poetic, magic expressivity (“a fluid and dreamlike landscape”); Hayward compares the aesthetic field of rock video to that of early cinema. But such comparisons often prompt one to gruffly wonder if, for instance, video art’s vaunted poetry is just a miserable reduction of what has already been achieved by the masters of experimental film; or if music video is sometimes just the pale, pulverised rerun of a showbiz tradition that reached its peak in the Hollywood musical.


In fact, I sympathise with the lapses of Hayward and Welsh into old-fashioned artspeak or filmcritspeak. Although commentators including Peter Wollen have begged us to embrace the ‘knight’s move’ into a new aesthetic realm supposedly occurring in these new cultural forms, it is indeed hard to say what is exactly new in them. One sometimes doubts that there is anything new in them. Hayward argues strongly for the new aesthetic value of music video but, in doing so, he conveniently sidesteps the iron-clad protocols that make the form so often dull, conventional and repetitious: always show the singer, never interrupt the song … The so-called Age of Sampling – voices and images alike generated from digital circuits – has not yet budged these protocols one inch, as a glance at all those pop stars on TV desperately trying to mime their own audio-samples proves. And right across the art-technology scene we encounter similar inflated comparisons and delusions: so much effort has been expended in computer imaging to simulate the styles of great painters or produce life-like animation – but has there been anything yet glimpsed to rival a single great Picasso canvas or Tex Avery cartoon?


The best essays in the book refuse the deadly options of either prophecy of techno-doom or Utopian tomorrow-is-today reverie. Philip Brophy’s intricate account of developments in Stereo sound (with special reference to Dennis Hopper’s 1988 film Colors) shows how a technology can lead to altered expressive capacities in a medium like cinema – and also how existing critical/theoretical approaches have so far failed to grasp the present-day materiality of such changes. The essays by Tony Fry, Alan Durant and Anne-Marie Willis grapple with the difficult conceptual implications arising from new technological practices. Willis is especially perceptive in her analysis of the photographic image as, increasingly, only a “nodal point” in the emerging networks of image production. Willis’ hope that there could still be the possibility of “a break in the circuit of the system” or “critically conscious cultures which can be introduced into the system to work like viruses” is guarded; but it is a hope echoed and explored more concretely by Andrew Murphie in his sketch of a modern art of performance that might still recapture moments of “grace” and political lucidity.


There are inevitably disappointments in the book. Unfortunately standing-in for all those lo-tech practices that flourish in tertiary media departments and well-equipped loungerooms everywhere, George Barber’s contribution on Scratch Video is shallow, leading one only to conclude that the form (like holographic art) has already exhausted its meagre aesthetic and cultural possibilities. Tony Fry’s essay is written at his usual level of linguistic and expressive mastery: “It is not implied that the only kind of determinate information is technical, the socio-cultural is, for instance, equally able to be inducted as directive”. Wow, I totally get that.


Paul Brown’s spiel reaches up to the very height of post-human insanity: breathlessly looking forward to the wonderful day when we will be able to plug our PCs directly into our disembodied brains, Brown sidesteps the possible benefits of retaining old-fashioned items like touch, smell, taste, sex and conversation – and, in the process, shows himself (like so many tech-heads) completely unable to deal with the feminist critique of such disembodiment fantasies. Brown’s rave reminded me of a local cyberpunk manifesto by Troy Innocent and Dale Nason (in the grand style of performance artist Stelarc) which urged all punters on the future to “reject the meat of your body”. Don’t these guys still have to crap in the morning like the rest of us?


© Adrian Martin December 1995

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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