Lev Manovich on Wed, 24 Apr 2002 09:37:16 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> GENERATION FLASH (3A / 3)

Lev Manovich
(3A of 3)

___________________Art, Media Art, and Software Art___________________


Recently ³software art² has emerged as the new dynamic area of new media
arts. Flash¹s ActionScript, Director¹s Lingo, Perl, MAX, JavaScript, Java,
C++, and other programming and scripting languages are the medium of choice
of a steadily increasing number of young artists. Thematically, software art
often deals with data visualization; other areas of creative activity
include the tools for online collaborative performance / composition
(Keystroke), DJ/VJ software, and alternatives to / critiques of commercial
software (Auto-illustrator), especially the browsers (early classics like
Netomat, Web Stalker, and many others since then). Often, artists create not
singular works but software environments open for others to use (such as
Alex Galloway¹s Carnivore.) Stylistically, many works implicitly reference
visual modernism (John Simon seems to be the only one so far to weave
modernist references in his works explicitly).

Suddenly, programming is cool. Suddenly, the techniques and imagery that for
two decades were associated with SIGGRAPH geek ness and were considered bad
taste ­ visual output of mathematical functions, particle systems, RGB color
palette ­ are welcomed on the plasma screens of the gallery walls. It is no
longer ³October² and ³Wallpaper² but Flash and Director manuals that are the
required read for any serious young artist.

Of course from its early days in 1960s computer artists have always wrote
their own software. In fact, until the middle of the 1980s, writing own
software or at least using special very high-end programming languages
designed by others (such as Zgrass) was the only way to do computer art.  So
what is new about the recently emerged phenomenon of software art? Is it

Let¹s distinguish between three figures: an artist; a media artist; and a
software artist. 

A romantic/modernist artist (the nineteenth century and the first half of
the twentieth century) is a genius who creates from scratch, imposing the
phantoms of his imagination on the world.

Next, we have the new figure of a media artist (the 1960s ­ the 1980s) that
corresponds to the period of post-modernism. Of course modernist artists
also used media recording technologies such as photography and film but they
treated these technologies similar to other artistic tools: as means to
create an original and subjective view of the world. In contrast,
post-modern media artists accept the impossibility of an original,
unmediated vision of reality; their subject matter is not reality itself,
but representation of reality by media, and the world of media itself.
Therefore these media artists not only use media technologies as tools, but
they also use the content of commercial media. A typical strategy of a media
artist is to re-photograph a newspaper photograph, or to re-edit a segment
of TV show, or to isolate a scene from a Hollywood film / TV shows and turn
it into a loop (from Nam June Paik and Dara Birnbaum to Douglas Gordon, Paul
Pffefer, Jennifer and Kevin McCoy, etc.) Of course, a media artist does not
have to use commercial media technologies (photography, film, video, new
media) ­s/he can also use other media, from oil paint to printing to

The media artist is a parasite who leaves at the expense of the commercial
media ­ the result of collective craftsmanship of highly skilled people. In
addition, an artist who samples from / subverts / pokes at commercial media
can ultimately never compete with it. Instead of a feature film, we get a
single scene; instead of a complex computer game with playability,
narrative, AI, etc. we get just a critique of its iconography.
Thirty years of media art and post-modernism have inevitably led to a
reaction. We are tired of always taking existing media as a starting point.
We are tired of being always secondary, always reacting to what already

Enter a software artist ­ the new romantic. Instead of working exclusively
with commercial media ­ and instead of using commercial software ­ software
artist marks his/her mark on the world by writing the original code. This
act of code writing itself is very important, regardless of what this code
actually does at the end.

A software artist re-uses the language of modernist abstraction and design ­
lines and geometric shapes, mathematically generated curves and outlined
color fields ­ to get away from figuration in general, and cinematographic
language of commercial media in particular. Instead of photographs and clips
of films and TV, we get lines and abstract compositions. In short, instead
of QuickTime, we use Flash. Instead of computer as a media machine ­ a
vision being heavily promoted by computer industry (and most clearly
articulated by Apple who promotes a MAC as a ³digital hub² for other media
recording / playing devices), we go back to computer as a programming

Programming liberates art from being secondary to commercial media. The
similar reason may be behind the recent popularity of ³sound art.² While
commercial media now uses every possible visual style, commercial sound
environments still have not appropriated all of sound space. While rock and
roll, hip-hop, and techno have already become standard elevator music (at
least in more hip elevators such as the Hudson Hotel in NYC), it seems that
the rhythm-less regions of sound space are still untouched ­ at least for

To return to the topic of new modernism. Of course we don't want to simply
replay Mondrian and Klee on computer screens. The task of the new generation
is to integrate the two paradigms of the twentieth century: (1) belief in
science and rationality, emphasis on efficiency, basic forms, idealism and
heroic spirit of modernism; (2) skepticism, interest in ³marginality² and
³complexity,² deconstructive strategies, baroque opaqueness and excess of
post-modernism (1960s-). At this point all the features of the second
paradigm became tired clichés. Therefore a return to modernism is not a bad
first step, as long as it is just a first step towards developing the new
aesthetics for the new age.

PART 3B will be posted shortly.]

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