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<nettime> more on Bochner/jodi/formalism
Jon C. Ippolito on Fri, 22 May 1998 19:01:01 +0200 (MET DST)

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<nettime> more on Bochner/jodi/formalism

[Maybe some arts institution should start a program in the conservation
 of ascii art, which is proving to be a surprisingly fragile medium. -T]

Saul Albert sent me the following reply to my post on the relevance of Mel 
Bochner's 1966 _Working Drawings..._ piece for digital artists like 
jodi. Saul suggested I post his message together with my own reply, so 
I'm doing that now. (Apologies for the delay, Saul...)

>>>>On 4/21/98 Saul Albert <saul.albert {AT} virgin.net>wrote: 
Looking through my nettime archives I was very interested in your
discussion, particularly in relation to jodi. 

I understand from your descriptions that the diagrams were not Bochner's own,
but were denoued from various technical resources and re-presented.  It is in
this re-presentation that I would posit the artistic endeavour.

The diagrams may not have been created as art, but they were certainly curated
as such. The argument heads from here to the good ol' content/context,
nature/nurture debates and will drag on forever.

In the meantime though, you have called attention to some very interesting
points of entry into this part of the greater debate.

"His use of a photocopy machine to generate the artistic content of the show
suggests the infinite reproducibility of e-mail messages and Web pages"

The suggestion is there, but there is a considerable ontological difference
between the photocopy and the collection of bits that make up an e-mail or a
web page. 

The photocopy is still a copy. Even Sherrie Levine's pirated photographs are
essentially copies; something that denotes an original, whereas the e-mail or
the webpage exist simultaneously on every computer on which they are displayed.

The transfer of data over the web can be seen as teleportation, or induction of
multiple existence rather than as an imitation or a copying. The disk onto
which the data is written does not change physically, it's magnetic charges are
simply re-arranged. Hmm. I'm going off on a tangent..

The concept of a "copy" is a tricky one here. Intellectual property on the web
is another wall you have sent me running into...*1

"what is gained--and what is lost--in cutting these diagrams out of their
original context and inserting them into art?"

context is gained...and lost. 

In their original context these technical drawings may have illustrated certain
theories or had some narrative relevance that is lost in their re-presentation.
However in the freeing up of the context within the conceptual "white cube" of
the contemporary art we are presented with alternative modes in which to
evaluate these drawings.

for example:

>        What? Damn..., you...you...(I
>                                           ___
>    =5B1=5D           =5B2=5D       =5B3=5D     =5B4=5D   =7C S =7C  
=5B5=5D       =5B6=5D      =5B7=5D
>     ________   _________  ______         =7C w =7C         ________
>    =7C        =7C =7C        =7C =7C      =7C   __   =7C i =7C   __   
=7C        =7C =7C
>=5C/=5C/=7CSampling=7C-=7CQuantize=7C-=7CEncode=7C__=7C  =7C__=7C t 
>    =7C________=7C =7C________=7C =7C______=7C        =7C c =7C        
> =7C            =7C                       =7C   =7C_h_=7C    =7C
> =7C           PAM                     PCM
>PCM                       =7C
>Analog Signal (You Talking)             /      =5C             Analog
>                                   /               =5C
>                              /                        =5C
>                         /                                 =5C
>                    /                                          =5C
>      Blow Up /                                =5C
>        /


this e-mail image from jodi re-configures an ASCII diagram that was
originally meant to illustrate a phreaking text explaining the bell
American telephone system. The re-presentation of the diagram has not only 
warped the diagram (it was originally written in notepad, not meant to be 
viewed in this format), it has caused us to re-evaluate the diagram on 
different terms. It is no longer an explanatory illustration, it is an 
aesthetic and
conceptual statement.

The ASCII characters themselves are phonetic representations, which
symbolically relate to THINGS..images and objects... Jodi creates a
circuit of reference....The phonetics and graphics become abstracted and
blended into a pixellated Mcluhanesque mosaic of phonetics and
signs.....I could blah blah...but I'll spare you.

"The argument that "scientific diagrams cannot be art because they 
tools" doesn't work in the case of Galois theory and other abstract 
mathematics, which has very few, if any, useful applications."
This argument makes no sense in this context. As Donald Judd has said
"If someone calls it art, it's art". Exactly half the "artness" 
of an
object is derived from the intention behind it's creation. The
scientific diagram in a technical manual, viewed in that context is not
art. However, someone who has never seen a canvass based painting before
might think it a rather poor tea tray, or a crap kite. The other half of
the object, situation or concept's "artness" comes from how it is

You have identified a very interesting area. On the net it is hard to
ascertain any sense of context as everything, art and non-art appears in
the same context.

In a recent nettime post I argued that in the case of jodi.org this
context was provided by jodi's programming. Briefly, I ranted on about
programmes being contexts within a computer. The parallels are

In one context (a photoshop context for example) a gif. image looks
like a bitmapped representation of whatever the author had done with it.
In a BBedit context it looks like ASCII gibberish...Hmm perhaps the
analogy is a bit laboured but it is a starting point for a discussion.

*1 for a brilliant discussion read Rosalind Krauss p151-170 from The
Originality of the Avant-Guarde (if you have not read this, do so at the
first opportunity)

>>>>On 5/20/98 Jon Ippolito (ji {AT} guggenheim.org) responded:
I agree with many of Saul's insightful comments. I find particularly 
appealing his suggestion that "exactly half the 'artness' of an 
object is derived from the intention behind its creation." (I'm 
curious to know how he knows it is exactly 50% and not 49.5%*)

His objection that the photocopy is fundamentally different from the 
digital copy is technically accurate, and I see why he thought this might 
be a fundamental distinction between Bochner's approach to redistributing
 content and the Webcast paradigm.  It's important to remember, however, 
that Bochner was presenting *diagrams*: documents whose symbolic content 
is supposed to insure their repeatability. That is, an algebraic equation 
or Venn diagram handwritten by Albert Einstein is no more valid mathematica
lly than the same thing copied by an eighth-grader--or reproduced by a 
Xerox machine, for that matter.  (It is interesting to note in this light 
that both Bochner and jodi in their own work reproduce diagrams of the 
very mechanism that makes that reproduction possible: Bochner included in 
his Xerox book a wiring diagram of the Xerox machine itself, while jodi 
include in their Web site a diagram of the "neighborhood" of the 
Internet in which their site is embedded.) So in practice a photocopy of a 
diagram may be no more "lossy" than a digital copy of a Java applet.

Of course, scientific documents like the ones Bochner copied only convey 
information in their proper context (mathematical journals and the like), 
where there is an implied convention for translating those particular 
formal marks into symbolic content.  As Saul points out, since the gallery 
for Bochner's installation offered no such context, his viewers were 
forced to make meaning of these  "working drawings" in any way they 
could manage. 

The important question, it seems to me, is whether displaying diagrams or 
computer code outside their original contexts will push viewers toward 
more radical--or toward more conservative--ways of looking at images. In 
Bochner's work, such re-presentations are always implicitly questioned. 
For example, one of Bochner's photographs shows his arm next to a strip 
of tape on the wall marked "12 inches"; the photograph looks straightfo
rward enough until we realize that there is no guarantee that just because 
the scale looks 12 inches long in the photographic print that it was 
really a foot long on the original wall. Given his thesis that "language 
is not transparent," Bochner may have chose to present technical 
diagrams in a gallery precisely in order to draw critical attention to his 
viewers' tendency to read them aesthetically. Witness his title: 
_Working Drawings and Other Visible Things on Paper Not Necessarily Meant 
To Be Viewed As Art_.  jodi does much the same thing by cutting diagrams 
such as the one Saul cites above off from any trace of their original 
meaning--but while Bochner presents his conundrums in as clear a form as 
possible, jodi thrives on obfuscation and illegibility. This leaves 
viewers who can't imagine the code underneath jodi's digital larks 
little choice but to read them as formalist abstraction--albeit abstraction
 from an interactive interface rather than just from a static image.

To be sure, some approaches to formal abstraction can lead to radical 
questioning. When Robert Ryman reduced his imagery to white brushstrokes 
and employed magnets, bolts, and other unusual means of affixing his 
supports directly to the wall, he drew his viewers' attention to the 
architectural and physical constraints that easel painters usually take 
for granted. But if Saul is correct that programming is the context for 
jodi, then that fact is both their strength and their undoing. The lay 
viewer understands the physics of brushstrokes and bolts. What are 
non-programmers to do when faced with jodi's free-floating code--except 
admire the dazzling patterns and pretty colors?

Jon Ippolito
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