Josephine Berry on Thu, 23 Aug 2001 11:50:31 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Automatism/Autonomy/Virtual UnconsciousIII

Convulsive Beauty Then and Now

In 1924 Louis Aragon wrote: "If 'reality' is the apparent absence of
contradictionŠthe marvelous is the eruption of contradiction in the real."
(44) Contrasting this statement to the positions of Antiorp, Zizek and
Baudrillard makes clear that the prevailing picture of 'reality' at the
turn of the 20th century is something very different. Since our reality
today is dominated by 'truths' such as the 'irrational exuberance' of the
market or the unquantifiable probability of an epidemic outbreak of CJD, a
radical aesthetics can no longer tenably be premised on revealing the false
illusion of consistency.(45)  But conversely, as Hal Foster has
persuasively argued, the Bretonian surrealists' interest in uncovering
repressed psychic and social content to reveal its marvelous
contradictions, was not aimed at the radical disaggregation of the subject
or society that this might imply. Foster makes a case for the uncanny
being, paradoxically, the repressed content of Bretonian surrealism but one
that is 'everywhere treated'. In other words, the surrealists were drawn to
the uncanny - the repressed material which returns to disrupt unitary
identity, aesthetic norms and social order - but resistant to its truly
disruptive, compulsively repetitive and deathly force. In the Second
manifesto du Surréalisme, Breton explains that the primary urge of
surrealism is to 'fix[] the point' at which core opposites such as life and
death, the real and the imagined, the past and the future, "cease to be
perceived as contradictions".(46)  For Foster, this wish to reconcile what
cannot be reconciled reveals that:

"[t]he paradox of surrealism, the ambivalence of its most important
practitioners, is this: even as they work to find this point they do not
want to be pierced by it, for the real and the imagined, the past and the
future only come together in the experience of the uncanny, and its stake
is death." (47)

>From what could be exaggerated as the safety of the Bretonian surrealist
position, the uncanny provided the opportunity for the aesthetic concept of
the 'marvelous' whose key components were 'convulsive beauty' and
'objective chance'. In the discussion that follows here, we will be mostly
concerned with the formulation of convulsive beauty because of its ability
to grasp in images the interpenetration of the conflicting impulses
operative in the unconscious: the life drive (Eros) and the death drive
(Thanatos). Through a consideration of the ASCII movie Deep Ascii by Vuk
Cosic (1998) and Olia Lialina's online narrative Agatha Appears (1997), I
will discuss the net artists' similar interest in the interpenetration of
the binaries order and disorder, and animate and inanimate, but show how
here the 'repressed' of Bretonian surrealism - the threat of disaggregation
without reconciliation - comes to its conscious articulation.
In the Manifesto, Breton gives several examples of the marvelous: romantic
ruins, a train trapped amidst vines in the jungle and shop mannequins. Both
these emblems, cherished by surrealists, involve a coincidence of
opposites; the ruin and the train suggest the forces of culture in conflict
with those of nature, the submission of history and 'progress' to entropy,
and the mannequin encapsulates the inhuman or inanimate in the human - an
emblem of capitalist reification. Breton's ability to conceive as
convulsively beautiful these revelations of the immanence of death in life
is for Foster evidence of Breton's own resistance to the 'grim connection'
which betokens the uncanny. Breton elaborates on the beauty of the
marvelous in L'Amour fou, declaring: "Convulsive Beauty will be
veiled-erotic, fixed-explosive, magical-circumstantial or will not be"(48)
Particularly pertinent to a reading of Cosic's Deep Ascii are the images
Breton offers of the veiled-erotic which entail reality convulsed into
writing: "a limestone deposit shaped like an egg; a quartz wall formed like
a sculpted mantle; a rubber object and a mandrake root that resemble
statuettes; a coral reef that appears like an underwater garden; and
finally crystals deemed by Breton a paradigm of automatist creation."(49)
Foster interprets these images of 'natural mimicry' as exemplifying the
uncanny because what alerts us to its presence is the return of something
familiar in the guise of something alien and threatening. In psychoanalytic
terms, the uncanny is characterised by the return of a familiar phenomenon
made strange by repression and transformed into a "ghostly harbinger of
death". In The Uncanny, written in 1919, Freud argues that there is an
instinctual compulsion to repeat, to return to a prior state, i.e. of
inanition, and that whatever reminds us of this repetition compulsion is
uncanny. Later, in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Freud finally formulates
the uncanny as the manifestation of the struggle between life and death
drives, or between Eros and Thanatos.(50)   For Freud, it is Thanatos that
ultimately dominates Eros, but for Breton the possibility of the drives'
resolution is preserved. His inventory of the beautiful involves precisely
this 'fixed-explosive' balance; the shock by which entropy is arrested to
reveal something significative and self-positing. As Foster stresses,
however, the coincidence of order and disorder, and/or sign and referent,
also point towards the underlying presence of disorder or the 'informe'
within what appears to be highly organised and meaningful. In this sense
the experience of the marvelous is less that of beauty than of "the
'negative pleasure' of the sublime.(51)
If the surrealist concept of convulsive beauty can be said to involve the
usurpation of the thing by the word (nature convulsed into writing), then
Vuk Cosic's 1998 'ASCII movie' Deep Ascii would seem to present an
inversion of this relationship.(52)  Cosic has taken the 1972 classic
pornographic movie Deep Throat as a highly schematic erotic 'sign' and
engineered its semiotic subversion and partial erasure through a purely
technical conversion. Crudely speaking, what Cosic, with programming
assistance from Luka Frelih, has done is to translate a sequence of film
images into a sequence of moving ASCII characters.(53)  This process
effectively updates an old technique used to print images from computers in
the days before the widespread availability of printers capable of
outputting raster digital images. Using a UNIX programme called 'toascci'
the computer was able to "print[] textual characters that represent the
black and white image used as input."(54)   Cosic and Frelih used an equivalent
process called 'ttyvideo' by which a video image can be converted into its
equivalent ASCII output. They then made a Java applet to play the video in
a Web browser. (55)  As Lev Manovich argues, where films such as George Lucas's
The Phantom Menace ("the first feature-length commercial abstract film: two
hours worth of frames made up of numbers") hide the digital nature of the
image under the appearance of traditional film, Cosic's ASCII movies
"'perform' the new status of media as digital data."(56) In actual fact, what
we view is no less a mediated representation of the underlying processes
than The Phantom Menace in that the figurative play of ASCII characters on
the computer screen is by no means a direct encounter with the binary
functions which underlie the Java script and HTML functions which produce
the image. Nonetheless, the translation of the fixed and indexical nature
of film into a shimmering display of discrete and shifting characters is
the result of the images' conversion into binary digital code and it is
this process which the ASCII characters signify or 'perform'.
The struggle produced by Deep AsciiI between legibility and chaos, or
information and noise, is a struggle for signification conditioned by the
'compulsive' activity of the software's automatic processes. Cosic has set
up the terms of the image translation, after which all number of variables
beyond his control decide upon whether the film sequence suddenly becomes
legible or remains obscure. This is ultimately quite different to the
surrealists' use of automatist processes such as hypnosis, frottage or
objective chance which were understood as a dissociative means capable of
producing a synthetic end; an asymmetrical means/end relation of causality
in which something irregular, undetermined or serendipitous brings forth a
deep, underlying unity (the liberated unconscious). With Deep Ascii by
contrast, the automatic-automatist process of the 'asciimator' converts
what was already often a hypnotically repetitive sequence into a densely
intricate scramble of green characters and numerals in which a recognisable
image is constantly lost and found. The viewer's struggle to decipher the
video likewise inclines her, in turn, to a kind of automatist state, a
suggestible frame of mind, triggered by the swirl of indistinct images and
dancing green characters, condensing into recognisable scenes and then
exploding into total abstraction. One is often uncertain if one is looking
at, say, a woman crossing the road or a couple engaged in fellatio. The
regularity of the software's procedure reveals the underlying irregular,
mutating tendency of Informatic behaviour and the instability of visual
perception. Although this regularity is certainly at odds with the
dissociative strategies of surrealism, the attempt to bypass the conscious
control of the image's production and to reveal an underlying chaos do
create parallels between the two moments.
Hal Foster's reading of the outcomes of these processes which the
surrealists' ultimate decision to abandon denies or represses, is helpful
in reading Cosic's much later variant of automatism. Foster sees the logic
unleashed by automatism, contrary to the surrealists' intentions, as
forcing the same conclusions as those reached by Freud in his late theory
of the primal struggle between the life and death drives:

"Of course, Breton and company framed the question of automatism very
differently. For them the problem was one of authenticity, i.e., of the
threat posed by calculation and correction to the pure presence of the
automatist psyche. But this formulation missed the more fundamental problem
- that automatism might not be liberatory at all, not because it voided the
controls of the (super)ego (such was its express purpose) but because it
decentered the subject too radically in relation to the unconscious. In
short, the question of the constraints of the conscious mind obscured the
more important question of the constraints of the unconscious mind."(57)

In light of these remarks, it is interesting that Cosic - who has converted
many shorter classic film clips into ASCII movies- chose a pornographic
film for conversion into the only movie that approaches full length.(58)
Cosic, passing over the sexual content of the film, has explained that the
choice of Deep Throat was a result of its ubiquitous use of close-ups which
provide a bolder image when converted into moving ASCII: "ASCII rendering
of an image does not allow you to use a lot of noise. You can use an image
with a lot of detail, but it will not render well in ASCII." (59)  In this
explanation, Cosic somewhat repurposes the term 'noise' to imply the less
bold elements of an image, rather than meaning that details are
non-meaningful per se. Although it is clear that Cosic is using this idea
of noise to make a quite technical point, his choice of words also
illuminates something essential in his selection of pornographic material
which he does not mention. Pornography makes use of film and the
conventions of cinema in a highly efficient and schematic way. For example,
a pornographic film typically dispenses with the necessity of a narrative
plot as soon as the basic erotic conceit has been established. Similarly,
the introduction of contextualising or mood setting shots is kept to a
minimum in order to reserve the majority of the film for the undisturbed
display of sexual acts. These acts themselves typically illustrate the
inherent instrumentality of the genre as erotic pleasure is whittled down
to the mechanics of stimulation and penetration in its full permutative
range. Metaphorically speaking then, pornography is a filmic genre that
attempts to keep 'noise' to a mimimum in the interest of keeping the
potential for erotic 'information' at a maximum.
Ironically, the mechanistic logic of pornography is reminiscent of the
compulsive repetitions associated with the death drive and yet it is
difficult not to associate pornography's erasure of 'noise' with a
repression of the very violence and deathliness which underpin eroticism.
In this sense, pornograpy, like Bretonian surrealism, courts the deathly
void of the unconscious - by way of repetitive, mechanical techniques -
whilst eschewing an encounter with its 'deathly stake'. Georges Bataille -
who, it is worth remarking, was a dissident from Breton's surrealist circle
- wrote extensively about the intimate connection between eroticism and
death.(60)  As Bataille noted, in most societies both sexuality and death are
the sites of extensive prohibitions and taboos, and it is the danger of our
attraction/repulsion to this pullulating complex of life and death forces
that the prohibitions seek to control. For Bataille the precondition of
life is an excessive, non-conservative and luxurious expenditure premised
on death, and conversely the putrefaction of death is also productive of
the fecundity of life. Eroticism, which itself partakes in this economy of
excess, is shot through with a desire for annihilation:

"Just as the crime, which horrifies her, secretly raises and fuels
Phaedra's ardour, sexuality's fragrance of death ensures all its power.
This is the meaning of anguish, without which sexuality would be only an
animal activity, and would not be erotic. If we wish to clearly represent
this extraordinary effect, we have to compare it to vertigo, where fear
does not paralyse but increases an involuntary desire to fall; and to
uncontrollable laughter, where the laughter increases in proportion to our
anguish if some dangerous element supervenes and if we laugh even though at
all costs we should stop laughing.

In each of these situations, a feeling of danger - yet not so pressing as
to preclude any delay -places us before a nauseating void. A void in the
face of which our being is a plenum, threatened with losing its plenitude,
both desiring and fearing to lose it. As if the consciousness of plenitude
demanded a state of uncertainty, of suspension. As if being itself were
this exploration of all possibility, always going to the extreme and always
hazardous. And so, to such a stubborn defiance of impossibility, to such a
full desire for emptiness, there is no end but the definitive emptiness of
death." (60)

Curiously perhaps, Cosic's insistance on a minimum of noise in his original
material, although on one level merely a straighforward requirement for
achieving any degree of legibility at all, is also the precondition for
producing a newly 'noisy' erotica. This is an erotica, if that is in any
way an adequate word, in which the image is constantly threatened with
disaggregation and the compact delivery of erotic information is constantly
undermined by the interference of the informe. Taking the highly Apollonian
material of Deep Throat, in which the destructive stake of eroticism is
bound and stabilised, Cosic releases a Dionysian disorder which, in my
opinion, reintroduces the 'nauseating void' of death into the erotic
spectacle. In this sense, Deep Ascii evidences what here has been termed
the virtual unconscious - an externalised and societal derepression in
which the repressive mechanisms which undergird the consistency of identity
are destabilised and wherein the subject is not spared a nauseating
confrontation with the void of self-cancelling chaos. In the shift from the
fixity of analogue film (whose frames can be spliced together but which, in
themselves, cannot be altered) to the mutability of the discrete units of
information (its binary code) this movement from a system premised on order
(Enlightenment rationality) to one based in deterministic chaos (the
'second Enlightenment')is concisely apprehensible. Relatedly, the material
instability of information, its 'flickering' state as N. Katherine Hayles
has described it, provides a rather different kind of automatic process.
Unlike the industrial machines of the pre-information age whose output was,
and still is, regular and repetitive, the output of the automatic processes
of computation is mutagenic and unpredictable. Its capacities to iterate or
parse and thus transvalue information, although orderly procedures in
themselves, are key to its more unruly potential. In this respect, the
automatic functions of computers produce unexpected effects with surprising
parallels to those automatist techniques of surrealism such as frottage,
hypnosis, and objective chance. In other words, the result of an algorithm
more closely approximates the creative output of the human psyche than the
holes punched by, say, an automated steel cutter. This uncanny aspect of
computers - neither dumbly, mechanically repetitive nor posessed of a
psychology - entails the same 'fixed-explosive' contradictoriness as the
surrealist notion of the marvelous. Strangely, the tools of the information
age have come to resemble the vying forces of the life and death drives,
the action of the Freudian unconscious. Computation then is not only
productive of a derepression, an exteriorised, virtual unconscious, it is
also emblematic of it. However, what a work such as Deep Ascii reveals is
that, in contrast to the Bretonian faith in the resolution of opposites
achieved by such a derepression, these tools tend to reveal the
disaggregated chaos before which the viewer swoons in the same
attraction-repulsion dynamic as we experience in the face of sex and
putrefaction. Noise opens up a vertiginous void before which we often feel
dazzled and powerless.

Agatha Appears (Disgusted): the Informatic Dissolution of the Autonomous

So far we have encountered Antiorp's experiments with nonlinear dynamics
and deterministic chaos which present a view onto an illegible but
nonetheless meaningful universe which delightedly contemplates our ethical
suspension 'beyond good and evil'. The nonlinear dynamics articulated and
celebrated in the work of Antiorp are, however, constantly indexed to a
variety of relatively orderly, rule-bound systems such as natural and
programming languages or the social codes developed in mailing lists. We
have also encountered Cosic's Deep Ascii which is one in a series of works
that translate stable forms (analogue films or physical buildings (62)) into
their unstable Informatic equivalents. In these translations, however, the
initial referent is always perceivable in some residual form, be it in the
intermittently recognisable sequences of a film or a building glimpsed
beneath its projected ASCII overlay. It is the tension maintained between
order and disorder, or stable referent and unstable Informatic sign -
perhaps an image of non-order - which triggers a sense of convulsive beauty
reminiscent of Bretonian surrealism. But Antiorp and Cosic also both
display something reminiscent of a Bataillan erotic exhilaration that
pivots between disgust at dissipative chaos of information systems and an
attraction to their complex, negentropic fecundity.
At the outset of this chapter we encountered Adorno's concept of repressive
desublimation and the associated impact on the bourgeois autonomous
subject. Adorno argued that in liberal bourgeois society, the repressed Id
also provided an unreachable psychic repository which both prevented the
unmediated expression of drives but also protected the unconscious from
direct Superego manipulation. Towards the end of the 20th century, we
encounter the idea of the 'non-oedipal' subject or cyborg for whom a key
attribute, as theorised by Haraway, is said to be "a different logic of
repression", a logic which is evidenced in the work of Antiorp and Cosic.
In contrast to the fascist co-optation of the Id by a repressive Superego
embodied in the singular figure of the Führer today, in these purportedly
'non-oedipal' times, the big Other terrorises through its infinite
complexity - the chaotic universe. A derepression of the Id, as epitomised
by the counter-cultural revolutions of the 1960s, coincides with an immense
complexification of the big Other in the form of epistemological crises and
the exponential growth of IT. In other words, the widespread social
injunction to express ones desires and live out ones fantasies is
accompanied by the inability to settle on the nature or mandate of
authority. As Western societies become increasingly atheist, the power
vacuum left by religion and unsuccessfully occupied by money, leads to a
questioning of authority or, in Zizekian terms, an attempt to fill out the
consistency of the symbolic order. This derepression is sometimes
experienced, and celebrated in culture as a release from individuality, a
radical interconnectedness with people, ideas, cultures, information,
technology, interdisciplinarity and so on, but as often it is experienced
as a threatening destablisation of subjectivity. If Antiorp's and Cosic's
work seems to operate ambivalently along this line of tension which runs
between the fear of complete disintegration and the delight in the
marvelous "eruption of contradiction in the real", Olia Lialina's work
articulates a more concrete and horrified sense of subjective decentrement
within the non-llinearity of the Net's dynamic.
Lialina's investigates this sense of instability through her hypertext
narratives which use the hyperlinked and decentralised structures of the
Net to create a literal and metaphorical sense of our inability to
cognitively map. In her 1997 work Agatha Appears - as with her 1996 work My
boyfriend came back from war. After dinner they left us alone discussed in
Chapter One - Lialina collides the sequential frame logic of film narrative
together with what Lev Manovich has termed the 'database logic' which
subtends computer narratives. For Manovich, narrative is just one amongst
numerous options for the sequencing of data in computer databases.(63)  Unlike
film whose frame by frame sequentiality inherently lends itself to
narrative, from the point of view of the computer's data storage and
retrieval systems, it is irrelevant whether data is arranged according to
chronology, alphabetical sequence, keyword or any available criterion. For
Manovich, this underlying logic is best expressed in the medium of the Net:

"Where the database form really flourished, however, is on the Internet. As
defined by original HTML, a Web page is a sequential list of separate
elements: text blocks, images, digital video clips, and links to other
pages. It is always possible to add a new element to the list - all you
have to do is to open a file and add a new line."(64)

>From this particular perspective we re-encounter the same nonlinearity and
multidimensionality that Antiorp explore in its work in the question of
hypertext narratives. Indeed the Internet in its entirety can be seen, and
often is, as a gigantic symbol and concrete example of a nonlinear system.
However, what is interesting in the work of Lialina, is her sensitivity to
the fact that the movement through a website entails a sequential logic
strongly reminiscent of film:

"Hypertext is the best way to tell stories, hundreds of stories
simultaneously. And interaction is merely a field for experiment, the same
as stage, film, brain. Net language is closer to film than video. Video
doesn't think by frame. Web does. Not only. It gives a chance to operate
with such ideas as line, parallel, associative (digital, wow) montage. Its
a fascinating experience."(65)

Although in this quote, Lialina makes clear that frame logic is only one
amongst multiple narrative dimensions offered by the Net, her online
narratives are intentionally reminiscent of film. As with the tensions
between order and disorder in the work of Antiorp and Cosic outlined above,
Lialina's work engages in an equivalent formal struggle between linear and
nonlinear sequence. We might say that, for her, film is the writing which
the Net threatens to convulse into a kind of nonsignificative 'nature', and
the characters in her narratives are directly under threat.
Agatha Appears can, in a limited respect, be described purely in terms of
its plot which follows a system administrator recently fired "because some
important files disappeared from his network". In a disgruntled and
perplexed state he meets Agatha, a 'lost country girl'. He asks her "Baby,
have you heard about the Internet?", to which she replies in the negative,
whereupon he invites her to his apartment and offers to 'teleport' her, or
upload her into the Net. Although they encounter some difficulites due to
her 'long legs', she eventually experiences a kind of dissolution in the
universe of "millions of zeros laughing and screaming". This experience,
which she finds both 'disgusting' and exhilarating, eventually separate her
from her system administrator beau and she is left to wander the lattice of
connections, from server to server, ad infinitum. The story is brought to
an end not through a resolution of the plot's inherent conflicts but by a
kind of apathetic or entropic resignation in which "Agatha los[es]
The plot itself is mirrored through an ingenious use of browser
functionalities as well as the system for storing the work's digital files
on the Net. As touched upon in Chapter Four, Lialina is highly conscious of
the location and names of digital files, seeing them as the only index of
originality available. In the plagiaristic environment of the Net, where
anyone can clone any website, the artist's URL is the only guarantor that
one is viewing the 'original', most up to date and uncompromised version of
the work. Her work also repeatedly reveals an interest in how the name of a
file is its location and that, in this respect, language very literally
controls the movement and behaviour of digital information - an example of
the new performativity of words in the Net. In this piece Lialina's files
are distributed across various servers and, as we shall see, the names of
the servers and files play an increasingly central role in the narrative.
Agatha Appears commences at, a file in the
collection of the Hungarian mediacentre C3's archive. After the initial
scene in which the flat cut-out figure of the system administrator appears
alone, the suffixes appended to the file names begin to set the various and
typically noirish scenes that unfold between the two characters. In the
second scene in which the equally flat and wooden figure of Agatha makes
her first appearance, the location bar reads, and

Agatha is introduced as a 'country girl' whose first appearance is
accompanied by an audio file of a folksy guitar song sung by a woman and
accompanied by children in which the line "goodbye Jack and Sue" is simply
repeated.(66) No doubt the song is intended to signify generically Agatha's
humble country origins. However from the outset the static, montaged
figures of the systems administrator and Agatha both sport clothing made
from textual fragments taken from the computer's interface. The systems
administrator's body is made up of the line: "EndUser - Doc_Catalogue" and
Agatha, in the first scene, wears a dress whose 'pattern' is the line
"B-Dir 22-97". In both cases it seems likely that these records of data
indexing relate to the production of the artwork itself. A physical
equivalent to this might be the artist's inclusion of her paint palette in
the final painting. The explicitly Informatic surface of both characters
implies that Agatha was always already determined by a proximity to
information and that her movement from Internet naif to fully 'teleported'
or uploaded digital entity is the inevitable movement from the ontological
in-itself to the for-itself of the information age.
However, the implied inevitability of this movement does not inure Agatha
to the shock of her own disintegration into information and subsequent
sentence to diasporically wander the lattice of networked computers. Until
the moment of teleportation, the dialogue which passes between Agatha and
her systems administrator occurs in the status bar at the bottom of the
browser where, ordinarily, information is displayed about the connection to
and download rate of a particular digital file. As the two characters
approach the bed in the systems administrator's apartment (the symbolic
launch pad of teleportation), the dialogue suddenly switches from the
status bar to a Script Alert window which pops up on the screen. This box
is usually only displayed when a compatibility error occurs between the
browser and the file being viewed (for example, it might require a plug-in
which the browser does not have), and its redeployment as the vehicle for
dialogue not urgent technical messages inflects the dialogue with a sense
of alarm. The dialogue in the Script Alert window reads as follows, with
each line accompanied by an 'ok' button which the viewer is compelled to
click before moving onto the next line and a 'cancel' button which s/he
must click to exit the sequence:

"No, definitely, your legs are too long"
"but what can I do?"
"Just a moment, I'll make a shortcut"
"U tried it before?"
"Many time[s]"
"What is error 19? Maybe better tomorrow?"
"No, no. It's ok. Careful! Ok"
"Shoulder! Shoulder!"
"Sorry, can I take my lipstick with me?"
"What is there?"
"Agatha, dear, what?"
"Millions of zeros, laughing and screaming"
"I'm sorry, it always worked"

It is this blunt use of the word 'disgusting' to describe a disaggregation
of the subject within the digital rhizome that distinguishes Lialina's work
from that of Antiorp and Cosic. And it is the Baudrillardian overproximity
or 'obscenity of information', the point at which the autonomous subject
and the symbolic order are exploded into 'millions of zeros, laughing and
screaming' to which, in my opinion, the word 'disgusting' refers. Despite
Lialiana's obvious fascination with computer networks - which is here
figured as the romantic frisson between Agatha and the systems
administrator - there is an open admission of the disgust of digital
'noise' never made by Antiorp or Cosic.
After this scene, and before embarking on her diasporic Net journey, Agatha
meets the systems administrator, quite anachronistically, at a railway
station, late in the evening and in the rain. Lialina evokes the railway
station atmosphere by situating the characters next to a time-table and
setting the dialogue in the status bar into motion. The text and ASCII
symbols move from right to left, and the dialogue itself is interspersed
between long bracketed sets of hyphens and characters designed to look like
train carriages. Part of this dialogue includes the system administrator's
conviction that the Internet is not merely a matter of applications,
scripts or the sum of its technological parts, but a "new world, new
philosophy, new way of thinking" with the conclusion that to understand the
Net "you must be inside". Importantly, Agatha's individual departure into
the digital dimension uses the historical springboard of industrialised and
bureaucratised travel and romantic film and fiction (one needs only think
of Anna Karenina as a reference here). The linear and modular sequence of
passing railway carriages appears to provide the techno-historical
counterpart to the sequence of frames passing through a projector at speed.
Agatha's departure into the 'new world' of the Net is thus also accompanied
by a shift from linear narrative (although nominally preserved by the
choreographed movement through the piece's set of hyperlinked webpages) to
the database logic of the underlying computer network. Several 'clicks'
into her journey, as can be seen in the series of URLs listed above, Agatha
has left the original C3 server behind her and is moving through a sequence
of servers most of which are owned and run by members of the net art
'community', and the first of which is tellingly named ''. Her
movement from one node of the Net to another is only represented through
the alteration of the URLs displayed in the location bar, as each new
downloaded page retains the same static image of Agatha against a black
background. Finally we arrive at the homepage of a net art site called
'' and the URL's suffix informs us that Agatha
"lost_the_interest.html". Agatha Appears does not, therefore, posses a
clear ending but instead involves a segue from one artwork into another
suggesting the non-discrete nature of any single artwork and, as the last
URL seems to underline, an entropic slide from ordered narrative into the
distraction of information play.
The three key narrative moments in Agatha Appears, I would suggest, are her
first experience of teleportation involving her 'disgust' at the chaotic
spectacle of "millions of zeros screaming and laughing", her departure from
the unitary location (and associated narrative logic) of the c3 server into
a diasporic journey through the network and finally the entropic slide of
the discrete artwork (and with it Agatha's own narrative) into the
distraction of nonlinear information play across the network. Ironically
given the subject of the narrative which centres on the entropic pull
towards Bataille's 'nauseating void', the very fact that this work can be
described in terms of three pivotal moments demonstrates its inherent
resistance to this selfsame destitution. In this sense, the very existence
of a coherent narrative cuts against the overt meaning of the narrative and
reserves a space for the possibility of meaning or order within the riotous
reign of noise. It is perhaps the fact that Agatha Appears, in contrast to
the works of Antiorp and Cosic discussed above, ventures a coherent
articulation of what is inherently incoherent - the paralogy of postmodern
language games amidst an overabundance of information - that she is also
able to articulate something as concrete as disgust. Here it is pertinent
to remark that Agatha Appears does not make use of automatism in the way
that Cosic does in Deep Ascii, that is to say, she does not harness any
single procedure in order to overcome the repressive controls of the Ego or
Superego to release the obscured dimension of the unconscious. Instead, her
hypertext narrative consciously controls the distributed network logic of
the Internet and narrativises its atomising effects (e.g. binary code,
hyperlinks, data packets, packet switching; ). For instance, she uses the
distributed storage system of the Net's many servers to produce the unusual
spectacle of the same page downloading time and again from different
locations and, although the Net's automatic procedures are relied upon to
produce this, the spectacle itself is nonetheless thoroughly determined. In
this instance, the Net's distributed structure produces a metaphor of
Agatha's own sense of deterritorialisation within the information age.
Automatic processes are therefore viewed both in their own right and as
metaphors for subjective experience, but never as autonomous agents of
creativity. Lialina's resistance to the technological autopoesis solicited
to a certain degree by Antiorp and to a much greater degree by Cosic
suggests her recognition and mistrust of the 'deathly stake' with which
such derepressions flirt. The voiding of egotistical and superegotistical
controls and the heteronomous reign of non-order that this augurs risks, in
social and subjective terms, a terrorisation by illegible and nonlocatable
forces which threaten an irreversible entropic slide; the drive of
Thanatos. In its aesthetic constellation or presentation of Informatic
chaos, Agatha Appears comes extremely close to Breton's category of the
fixed-explosive wherein the entropic drive of nature is momentarily frozen
into a highly organised cultural sign and conversely, where the sign is
interrupted by the chaotic force of nature. However, in so creating this
fixed-explosive image of Informatic chaos, Lialina reflects the movement
beyond a faith in derepression's promise of liberation and automatism's
guarantee of an insight into a unified but hidden other.
The instrumentalisation of chaos versus the indeterminateness of art and
natural beauty
On the subject of the threat inherent in the increasingly chaotic models of
economic, social and natural phenomena both Hayles and Zizek seem to agree
on an important point, and one that has not been concretely posed by my
discussion of these artworks. The point has to do with the
instrumentalisation of chaos to certain ends - an instrumentalisation which
I cannot simply extend to these artworks, especially when considering them
in line with some of Adorno's formulations of natural and art beauty which
we will briefly examine here. For Hayles, chaos theory and nonlinear
science do not ultimately constitute a radical break with modern science
and a move into the postmodern, but rather an intensification of the
former. Hayles has discussed how, in fact, chaologists often use the
principles of deterministic chaos to negate its effects through, for
instance, the conversion of nonlinear behaviour into linear behaviour.(67)  In
contrast to Lyotard's optimistic reading of the paralogy of postmodern
science (which ensures the never ending renegotiation of game rules),
Hayles together with the chaos theorist Stephen Kellert argue that the aim
of chaos theory is largely instrumental. Kellert suggests that to "see
chaos theory as a revolutionary new science that is radically discontinuous
with the Western tradition of objectifying and controlling nature falsifies
both the character of chaos theory and the history of science."(68)  It is on
this point that the poststructuralist adoption of chaos both differs and
converges with its scientific one. As Hayles explains, "for
deconstructionists, chaos repudiates order; for scientists, chaos makes
order possible", i.e. scientists use chaos theory to perceive further forms
of order in the world whereas poststructuralists use chaos theory to deny
that order exists.(69)  Hayles views the poststructuralist transformation of
the non-order of chaos into anti-order or disorder as a way of attacking
traditional ideas of order which are held to be coercive. But for this
reason, and here is where its scientific and cultural adoptions reconverge,
Hayles perceives the poststructuralist celebration of disorder as another
kind of  instrumentalisation of chaos theory and one that contributes to,
rather than subverting, the production of master narratives.
Zizek, however, in contrast to Hayles' insistence that master narratives
continue, is convinced that the so-called post-Oedipal society or, in other
terminology, the reflexivity of the risk society has a profound impact on
the subject as a result of the loosening of societal ties to tradition and
nature. For Zizek, this Unbehagen (uneasiness) of the risk society comes
down to the decline of symbolic trust as, due to the extreme reflexivity of
contemporary life, the big Other recedes and symbolic efficiency wanes:
"The disintegration of the big Other is the direct result of universalised
reflexivity: notions like 'trust' all rely on a minimum of non-reflected
acceptance of the symbolic Institution - ultimately, trust always involves
a leap of faith: when I trust somebody, I trust him because I simply take
him at his word, not for rational reasons which tell me to trust him."(70)
But, whilst recognising that master narratives or the symbolic institution
are destabilised by the reflexivity or recursiveness of the risk society,
Zizek also acknowledges that many master narratives are subsumed under one
inalienable narrative: the naturalisation of the market. Zizek historicises
this by reference to Marx's observation that, under market relations, "all
that is solid melts into air" - a reference to the unheard of dissolution
of traditional forms under capitalism. Instead of this dissolution
guaranteeing new freedoms, Marx saw the 'invisible hand of the market'
ironing out the multiplicity of small risks involved in market speculation
into a single global welfare. This, in short, is the ideology of the free
market. Marx's idea is that this one market-driven fate could be superseded
and social life brought under the control of humanity's 'collective
intellect'. It is, argues Zizek, this self-transparent ideal that the
theory of the risk society abandons but in so doing naturalises and
deploliticises the global market:
"Theorists of the risk society often evoke the need to counteract the reign
of the 'deploticised' global market with a move towards radical
repoliticisation, which will take crucial decisions away from state
planners and experts and put them into the hands of the individuals and
groups concerned themselves (through the revitalisation of active
citizenship, broad public debate, and so on) - however, they stop short of
putting in question the very basics of the anonymous logic of market
relations and global capitalism, which imposes itself today more and more
as the 'neutral' Real accepted by all parties and, as such, more and more
How do these instances of the instrumentalisation of non-order relate to
our discussion of net art's preoccupation with complex information systems
and the associated unraveling of subjective and objective stability? Does
it participate in a similar naturalisation and obfuscation of what we might
describe as the constructedness of the virtual unconscious? Does its
exploration of a chaotic, Informatic world determine the subject as
impotent, without agency? Here I would resist any too easy comparison of
scientific, economic and theoretical applications of nonlinearity to art's
own. Although, as Adorno persuasively argues, art cannot but participate in
the domination of nature to which its own development belongs, it is its
way of "resembling without imitating" the world, of consciously positing
itself, which at once distinguishes it from "the arbitrariness of what
simply exists" and at the same time allows empirical reality to become
eloquent.(72)  Adorno's discussion of the mutual reflectedness of art beauty
and natural beauty also opens up the way to discussing the relationship of
art to the complex second nature manifested by technological and Informatic
systems. In his discussion of art beauty and natural beauty he locates the
dimension of appearance as a crucial basis of their correspondence. Natural
beauty (a historically determined quality and distinct from any totalising
concept of nature as such) lies in its elusiveness, the fact that it is
never perceived voluntarily. The elusiveness its appearance, argues Adorno
in line with Hegel, is due to the fact that it is not created for or out of
itself, but that it takes form only through its external perception.
Natural beauty, experienced as always in this state of becoming, always on
the verge of revealing itself, therefore eschews any categorisation of what
does and does not constitute it:
"According to the canon of universal concepts it is undefinable precisely
because its own concept has its substance in what withdraws from universal
conceptuality. Its essential indeterminateness is manifest in the fact that
every part of nature, as well as everything made by man that has congealed
into nature, is able to become beautiful, luminous from within."(73)
Adorno finds this resistance to determination also evidenced in the
greatest works of art and their close resemblance to nature. "The more
perfect the artwork" he writes, "the more it forsakes intentionsŠif the
language of nature is mute, art makes this muteness eloquent"(74)  But this
articulation is always haunted by its impossibility which stems from the
insurmountable contradiction between the conscious attempt to make the mute
eloquent and the revelation of that part of nature which "cannot in any way
be willed."(75)
It is in this respect that, unlike the various instrumentalisations of the
virtual unconscious exposed by Zizek and Hayles in poststructuralism,
science and economics, we should consider these artworks as evidencing the
indeterminateness of art and natural beauty. It is possible to see in all
the works discussed in this chapter the struggle both to articulate the
second nature created by information systems and to solicit it to
articulate itself. Where surrealists engaged dissociative processes to
dislodge the grip of rationality and consciousness over experience, net
artists engage computational processes and rationale to destablise the
instrumentality that those self-same technologies epitomise. In a sense
then, net artists engage technocratic rationality to reveal its opposite -
an inability to map the concept onto the thing. Although net artists, like
surrealists, are attracted to automatism and the suspension of conscious
control, they do not invest the same confidence in the rupture of
inconsistency in the fabric of reality. What is important here is that, as
Zizek and Hayles point out and the artworks exemplify, chaos or the
uncertainties of the second Enlightenment have become the order of the day,
threatening human agency and promoting the naturalness of the market by
turns. But identifying the instrumentalisation of what I have been calling
the virtual unconscious does not exhaust its potential. Returning to
Adorno's identification of nature's resistance to 'universal
conceptuality', it seems that net artists are equally drawn to the
unpredictable mutations, the constant state of becoming that information
systems unleash. This state of becoming refers not only to the purely
technical behaviour of digital information but its social relations as
well, both of which are capable of resisting any totalistic
instrumentalisation. If information's deterritorialising atomisation is
sometimes experienced as 'disgusting', it also brings into being formations
which counter this lost sense of control. The technologically accelerated
exchange of information between people around the world reveals an equally
unpredictable social agency which is always-in-becoming. Antiorp's
interruption of the smooth running of mailing lists through the
introduction of noise can here be seen as test running the noisy
interruption of global techno-bureaucratic business as usual by the noise
of dissent. The disobedient dance of Cosic's ASCII characters points to a
potential explosion of the spectacle from within (one need only think about
the ongoing challenge of media monopolies by the multiple agencies on the
net). The threatening darkness of Agatha's diasporic wonderings might even
be suggestive of a real world dissolution of national boundaries and the
creation of global citizenship. Although I could be accused of falsely
imposing a reading on the works, it is their shifting, mutagenic forms
which allows such things to be glimpsed - as with the sudden revelations of
beauty in nature. If automatist processes have ceased to promise the
divulgence in art of a universal truth, they nonetheless provide a key
which unlocks the dual character of the virtual unconscious; a force which
by turns threatens the deathly entropy of chaos and the salutary hope of a
second nature whose unfathomable state of becoming can resist the total
penetration of instrumental rationality. It is this muteness which certain
net artists seek to make eloquent.

44)  Louis Aragon, La Révolution Surréaliste 3 (April 15, 1925), cited in
Hal Foster's Compulsive Beauty, p.20
  One is tempted to argue that the opposite is true - that in fact to
reveal the consistency with which inconsistency is proffered as a
descriptive model of the postmodern world might pove to be a far more
disruptive gesture.
45)  André Breton, Second manifesto du Surréalisme cited in Foster,
Compulsive Beauty, p.xviii
46)  Ibid, xix
47)  Breton, in Ibid, p.23
48)  Foster, Ibid, p.23
49)  See Ibid, p.9
50)  Ibid, p.28
52)  At the time, Luka Frelih was a colleague of Cosic's at the Ljudmila
Digital Media Lab in Ljubljana
53)  The UNIX manual, cited in Lev Manovich's 'Cinema by Numbers: ASCII
films by Vuk Cosic', Vuk Cosic: Contemporary ASCII, (Zaloznik: Galerija
S.O.U. Kapelica, Ljubljana, 2000), pp.9-10
54)  Vuk Cosic supplied me with this information in a private
correspondence, (February 10, 2001)
55)  Manovich, Vuk Cosic, p.8
56)  Foster, p.5
57)  See History of Moving Images,
58)  Vuk Cosic, 'The Ascii Art Ensemble', interview by Josephine Bosma,
(Telepolis, September 1998),
60)  See the section 'Eroticism' in The Bataille Reader, eds Fred Botting
and Scott Wilson, (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997)
61)  Georges Bataille, 'The Phaedra Complex', ibid, p.257
62)  In 2000 Cosic was commissioned by the Video Positive Festival in
Liverpool to create a site specific work in the city. Cosic photographed
the St. George's Hall and translated its proportions into a series of ASCII
images which he then projected back onto the building at night, which
appeared as a large three dimensional ASCII sculpture, with parts of the
building remaining visible underneath the projection. See
63)  Commenting on the by now commonplace archiving of museums on CD-Roms,
Manovich explains: "Although such CD-Roms often simulate the traditional
museum experience of moving from room to room in a continuous trajectory,
this "narrative" method of access does not have any special status in
comparison to other access methods offered by a CD-Rom. Thus the narrative
becomes just one method of accessing data among others." Lev Manovich, The
Language of New Media, op. cit., p.220
64)  Ibid
65)  Cited in 'Olga's Artists Statement: NETFILM', Telepolis, date unknown,
66)  This song is played several times throughout Agatha Appears acting as
a deliberately crude soundtrack.
67)  Ward, The Literary Appropriation of Chaos Theory, p.58
68)  Kellert, Wake of Chaos, pp. 115-16, cited in ibid, p.59
69)  Hayles, Chaos Bound, pp.22-3, cited in ibid, p.56
70)  Zizek, The Ticklish Subject, p.342
71)  Zizek, ibid, p.351
72)  Theodor Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, p.78
73)  Ibid, p.70
74)  Ibid, p.78
75)  Ibid

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