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<nettime> Landscape Painting of the Information Age
Armin Medosch on Thu, 19 May 2005 14:54:21 +0200 (CEST)


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<nettime> Landscape Painting of the Information Age


[This is another contribution to the Open Nature catalogue. I think it 
may also vaguely  relate to the Ghost in the Network thread. cheers, 
armin]

Landscape Painting of the Information Age 
or Romanticism In Media Art
Armin Medosch

In England, France and Germany during the age of 
rapid industrialisation a new direction in art 
emerged, romanticism. While the first modern 
factories were built the children of the middle 
class played out Arcadian fantasmagories dressing 
up as shepherds and shepherdesses in an idealized 
Greece.1 By playing those Arcadian games they did 
not only imitate and mock the aristocracy, they 
also asserted themselves as the rising new class. 
Angry young men stomped through the Swiss and 
German mountain forests writing revolutionary 
poems and plays2. It was a time of great social 
upheaval. Working classes were formed by driving 
peasants off common land. Owning neither land nor 
capital, the only way of making a living for the 
rural poor was moving to the cities and selling 
their labour to capitalist factory owners.3 Over 
the  very same period of time landscape painting 
was 'discovered' as an art form. A 'naturalistic' 
approach to landscape painting had never before 
played a big role in European art. At the very 
time when the countryside vanished behind the 
smoking chimneys of the Industrial Revolution art 
reconstructed  Nature as a mirror for the 
aspirations of the noble mind. 

As the schizophrenia of modernity settled in, 
nature became a very fertile ground for the 
imagination. Romanticism emerged from the 
contradiction of  trying to be one with nature 
and feeling to be fundamentally separated from 
it. Nature was being objectified by the making-
doing of the industrial revolution and its loss 
at the same time mourned in the arts. The search 
for nature contained also a political question. 
When the romantic youth contemplated nature, they 
could see, in the shape of the mountain ridges, 
in this frozen moment of time, the powerful 
forces at work that were reshaping the world. In 
romanticism wild nature symbolized the political 
changes of the time. Could nature give an answer 
to ethical questions, could there be a 'natural' 
form of government, was then the theme of many 
debates? Rosseau constructed a noble savage, 
externalizing the European confusion, as a type 
of human more in tune with nature than the 
urbanized citizens of France. As a psychological 
entity, the noble savage is very much in effect 
still today, having gone through all the cliches 
of Hollywoodization and advertisement treatment.

European intellectuals turned away -- in a move 
they will repeat again and again -- from the 
city. The dirty and overpopulated cities were 
conceived as the seat of all evil. This is where 
political struggles and revolutions were fought, 
where the police state was enforced, where new 
diseases were bread and could spread rapidly 
because of the proximity of people living so 
closely together. The city was the place of new 
forms of social coercion, of alienation, of being 
repressed. Only in contact with nature, suitably 
refashioned and aestheticized,  the citizens of 
the 19th century could get in contact with the 
true, the divine self. Romantic landscape 
painting created nature as a window to the self, 
a subjectivity that is transcended by opening 
itself up to nature. 

Nature and society, the city and the countryside 
were at odds with each other. The English 
Enlightenment produced a compromise solution. On 
the relatively small and relatively overpopulated 
part of the British Isles that is England 
'natural' countryside had almost ceased to exist. 
The English park was invented, a nature that is 
better than nature, an idealistic version of it, 
combed and groomed to look natural in a desired 
way. Nature survives as an artefact, a theme park 
of itself, which reflects the taste of rich 
landowners. 

Romanticism has never really left the arts, even 
if it, as an official  movement, petered out 
somewhere at the end of the 19th century. But the 
basic attitude of the romantic hero -- her or his 
fundamental opposition to bourgoise society, 
which they were also so deeply part of -- 
survived, and so did the trope of 'wild nature' 
as a mirror of psychological and socio-political 
conflict. The romantic hero is a tragic hero 
because he or she has not understood the 
contradictions of the society s/he is part of. A 
repressive social situation will always trigger 
escapist fantasies. Rejection of society as it is 
and idealistic protest either leads to death, 
which salvages the hero status, retreat into 
Arcadia = the hippie commune or the third way 
solution of getting a post in academia. There 
were very few traditions in the contemporary art 
of the last 100 years which were not romanticist 
or did not have a romantic streak, namely those, 
which were explicitely revolutionary and 
analytical. The romantic hero survived in the art 
system as the artist-genius driven by individual 
creativity and having access to knowledge which 
is exclusively their own. 

In media and net art survives a romanticism noir 
inspired by the Mary Shelley tradition of sci-fi 
goth literary fiction. From there via the noble 
savage of the pulp fiction Western novel it is a 
short jump to cyberpunk and the hackers with 
Mohican haircut. Since the 1990s the noble savage 
has a keyboard. The aesthetic paradigm of 
cyberpunk fiction is circumscribed by the 
dystopian city, Chiba City in Gibson's 
Neuromancer, or the Blade Runner City. The 
dystopian aspects of the cyberpunk city 
illustrate the failure of the technological 
society. 

Data Mining

Media and net art increasingly turn to 
aesthetization of information flows via 
sonification and visualization. Thereby they 
encounter the unresolved contradictions of 
capitalist technosocieties. Science fashioned 
nature as its object and learned to study it ever 
more closely. Properties of electromagnetic waves 
are used for sophisticated communications 
systems; space probes are being sent out, the 
Hubble telescope scans the depth of the universe, 
the particle accelerator gives us insight into 
the smallest particles that make up matter. While 
we are learning more in the depth of the detail 
about outer space and the micro-organisation of 
matter, science encroaches on the inner core of 
nature. Will its very object vanish behind all 
the numbers and formulas once everything is 
satisfyingly explained? Or is there a part of 
nature that withdraws itself from us? 

The scientific instruments of our time have 
opened rich pipelines into the data sources of 
nature. With the constructivist instruments of 
mathematics and engineering the datanauts are 
diving into oceans of information that represent 
the physical materiality of the world 
(oceanography, climate change research, GIS). 
Now, nature is becoming quantized and quantified, 
it is being dematerialized and turned into 
information. The ideology of the information age 
fetishizes information as a sort of 'divine' 
substance. Analogies are constructed between the 
brain as a computer and life as a code - the 
genetic code. Everything is information in the 
beginning and is turned into information again at 
the end of its life cycle. As artists are getting 
hold of the techniques of information processing, 
landscape painting of the information age emerges 
as a major theme in the early 21st century.4 It 
shows us nature distilled into information 
'flows'.

Artists reinterprete nature along the lines of 
the noir thread in romaticism. Networked urban 
culture is experienced as a second nature. The 
social relationships in networks become the raw 
material. Network scientists are looking for 
biological patterns in the information flows 
produced by networked communities.5 We are 
craving for natural explanations in the mess of 
the social to absolve us.6 New deterministic 
answers discovered in those networks would let us 
off the hook and avoid politically unpleasant 
questions. Can pure data7 be the source that 
stills our thirst for the natural, the divine, 
the transcendent? Can we use those data flows to 
enter into a dialogue with nature again?

Back to the Bios?

In a discussion of Herbert Marcuse's view on 
technology and science, Jürgen Habermas asks what 
we could expect from a nature opening its eyes. 
What he means is that science has dealt with 
nature as an object. Is it possible to develop a 
fundamentally different type of science and 
technology? Would it be possible to have an open 
dialogue with a nature which is not an object 
anymore but a lively animated subject? How to 
start this dialogue without repeating past 
mistakes? Or, to ask the question in a modern 
way, what is the interface? Scolars of science 
studies tell us that our dialogues with nature 
are obstructed by age-old dichotomies which 
burdon our thinking, such as the dichotomy 
between nature and society, between subject and 
object. What would it mean to move beyond those 
dichotomies? Wouldn't that open the doors for a 
sweeping relativism? Of course nature and society 
are not completely seperate entities which are in 
binary opposition to each other -- the standard 
definition of dichotomy. By putting nature to 
work in the shape of technology, societies have 
long become technosocieties, societies in which 
the technical - the controlled transformation of 
the forces of nature  - and the social are linked 
to each other in many ways so that they evolve 
together, mutually influencing each other (in 
which ways exactly, in a causal or linear way, 
for example, would be a point of further 
reflection). If we try to understand the co-
evolution of the techno-social would it help to 
introduce, just for a moment, the metaphor of the 
BIOS? In computer systems the BIOS is the 
computer interface code that gives access to 
hardware on a low level. Would it be possible to 
have something like a Bios of the information 
society, an interface between the hardware and 
software of reality? Could we construct such an 
interface where the biological is integrated with 
the BIOS and where the concepts of the technical 
and the political mesh? 

Art has traditionally had a very good way of 
opening itself up to nature. This way was called 
'contemplation'. To contemplate means more than 
just to reflect on something intellectually. It 
means to look and think at the same time which 
goes often hand in hand with the experience of 
feeling calm and balanced and a heightened 
expectation at the same time. All the senses are 
razor-sharp while the mind is racing. In 
contemplation we can find ourselves being part of 
and standing out of nature. The dichotomy, which 
maybe will never be solved theoretically, is 
transcended temporarily in the mind. The 
oppositions of the dichotomy may turn out to be 
the wheels of a dialectical history. In a best 
case scenario media art can come to some 
understanding of those axial connections between 
society and nature through its actual practice. 
Out of contemplation of the forces driving 
history and society,  media artists can move into 
action by building working technological 
assemblages. I am using this slightly odd phrase 
to emphasise the systemic aspects of this type of 
art-work. A working technological assemblage 
might well have a picture as an end-result, but 
what makes it really interesting are the inputs 
and outputs and the processes that happen in 
between. If we look behind the picture, we find 
the process. There is modeled a complete world-
view, an image of the world and its working. This 
image, which is of course not a realistic 
'picture' but a constellation of forces, of 
energies and motives, is constructed as a montage 
of information flows. Work of this type becomes 
applied critical theory. It exposes the 
underbelly of the romanticist beast; it looks 
into Godzilla's stomach and counts the cars; it 
shows us the bios of the information society, the 
bios-political. 

This is the chance and responsibility of media 
art. Too often media art just sails in the slip 
stream of the consumer electronics and IT 
industry, providing excuses for commodity 
fetishism, guiltily snacking on the fruits of 
technological determinism. Could media art rid 
itself of the image of the romantic hero, single 
handedly fighting the evils of expansionary 
technocapitalism? Can media art, as a 'science of 
the imagination'8, employ contemplation and 
critique to overcome the repressive current 
social order? The information flows that are 
increasingly governing our lives on many levels 
are understood only by a minority of people. The 
artists can tap into the dataflows and make 
connections which would be 'illegitimate' for 
scientists. They have the ability of rendering 
visible how the mutant cyber-society emerges. The 
data artist is providing a mirror to society by 
giving data eyes and ears. At least in theory, 
meaningful representation of data leads to 
meaningful participation of the individual. But 
what does meaningful mean? Artists dealing with 
information flows have the not so trivial task of 
establishing the ontological status of the data 
objects. To which extent are we dealing with 
numerical fetishes, with fact or fiction (or 
factishes, Latour9 would want us to say)? What 
are the sources of information and which 
transformations have they gone through?

The artist's work can only be done properly, if 
there exists open access to the data. As the 
privatization of knowledge, the expansionary 
tendency of intellectual property progresses, the 
free-libre open source software (Floss) movement 
keeps pushing the boundaries and provides artists 
with the tools to host their own data landscapes 
to play with. The liberating potential of the 
access provided by Floss developers cannot be 
underestimated. At the same time this networked 
ecology is always under threat of collapsing for 
a number of reasons. There is not only the 
pressure of the market and the coca-
colonialisation of the net, there are also the 
internal contradictions, for example, between the 
expectations that techno-utopianism creates and 
the reality in which our cyber-romantic heroes 
find themselves. 

The digital Arcadia today presents itself either 
in its same old post-cyberpunk clothes or in a 
slightly more glamourized candy pop version. 
Which possibilities are there, besides nihilsm 
and consumerism, for the data gardeners of the 
near future? Taking information flows and 
materializing again what had become 
dematerialized, the landscape painting of the 
information age feeds data back to where it has 
taken them. Landscape painting is of course only 
a metaphor, and a slightly misleading one too. 
The landscape is not static, it contains the 
whole loop, the circulation of data from one 
ontological status (matter/data) into the other, 
and back again; it gives nature eyes and ears, 
our eyes and our ears, by sonification or 
visualisation. Would this be the new type of 
nature Marcuse dreamed about? Can we speak to 
it/him/her? Can we close the loop and create 
complete cycles? This question must be left for a 
later date. For now we can say we have enough 
work to do by learning to be able to listen when 
nature speaks. Once we will have made substantial 
progress in that then the next question will be 
if nature gets politically high-jacked again as 
the weapon of objective knowledge. Or is it 
possible for a number of  'natures' to peacefully 
coexist? Media art can provide a specific layer 
of access to this complex of questions. It does 
not need complete theoretic knowledge to procede 
to praxis. It provides experiences by using the 
bag-of-tricks of technology with a critical 
consciousness. The open question is if media art 
can only surprise once (like someone providing a 
novelty or a trick) or can create a legacy with 
types of expression that are particular to it and 
compelling enough for a wide range of people. 

Acknowledgements: This text benefitted from 
comments by Shu Lea Cheang and Felix Stalder.

1 So called 'Schäferidyllen' or 'Schäferspiele' 
which were popular in the pre-romantic period of 
classicism; Goethe's Werther and other works of 
that period were greatly influenced by it.
2 I am referring particularly to Georg Büchner 
and Heinrich Heine
3 Das Kapital, Karl Marx, deutschsprachige 
Ausgabe, Wien 1929, Kröner Verlag
4 The only artist, as far as I know, who 
literally creates landscape painting of the 
information age is Wolfgang Staehle. He is quite 
conscious about his references to art history. 
But I am actually speaking about other types of 
work which are not so aware of the references and 
connotations, from the early work of Jodi to 
turux.org and many other examples which I could 
give.
5 Duncan Watts, Laszlo Barabasi and others follow 
this path with the relatively new strand of 
'network science'.
6 Richard Dawkins, with his meme theory, conquers 
culture through evolutionary determinism
7 Pure Data is the name of a software that allows 
real-time processing of information flows, 
http://puredata.info
8 The term 'science of the imagination' is 
borrowed from The One-dimensional Man by Herbert 
Marcuse.
9 Bruno Latour, Pandora's Hope, Harvard 
University Press, Boston and London 1999


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