Are Flagan on Thu, 19 Sep 2002 23:33:09 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Sign of the times

"Sign of the times" was inspired by an observation that 7 out of
10 contemporary net.artists are basically doing the same thing. It was
written to think through a lingering curiosity about the largely
unarticulated reasons why. The pervasive *transcoding* phenomenon
discussed has all the usual trappings of a (net/computer) art *movement.*
Comments to improve on this draft are most welcome, especially from
nettimers that are better informed about computer science. (URLs for the
three projects discussed are in the notes.)



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Sign of the times (Are Flagan)

In his influential The Language of New Media, Lev Manovich prominently
listed *transcoding* among the founding principles of new media.[1]
Discussing the digital practices and operations arising to merit the
debated shift into *new,* he singled out the ability of numerically
encoded media objects to translate or transform themselves, with
unprecedented ease, according to hitherto unfamiliar, boundless properties
and coordinates. Although the transcoding concept has received its due
share of attention since the book's publication last year, frequently
being quoted as the prime example of *old* cataclysms, the associated
grammar of principles has largely ignored many common, more pragmatic uses
and applications of the term. At its computing root, transcoding obviously
regulates and facilitates the play of presence and absence through math
and logic, thereby effectively making its operations _active_ across a
vast field, ranging from the foundations of western metaphysics to the
latest electronic switches. So considered broadly along with its profound
dispersal, which always returns to the consolidating principles deployed,
the impending gravity of computer transcoding is hence, and not only
epistemologically speaking, immense. To avoid the neighboring rhetorical
black hole of sweeping generalizations compiled in rounded nutshells, this
brief essay will attempt to theorize aspects of this pervasive impact
through specific and prominent trends in contemporary

To once more narrow the focus on these preoccupations, one can in
retrospect appreciate that even the earliest controversies of
unauthorized mirroring were less about repeating the simulacra of
postmodernism, which had already been exhaustively explored through the
medium of photography in the preceding decade, than it was about
revisiting questions of authenticity and uniqueness through the added
momentum of transcoding. The act of mirroring, seen here as always in a
differentiated yet fulfilling presence, in the 1999 actions of did not only clone the destined-for-stardom site byte by byte under another domain name, it also downloaded and
offered a subversively _altered_ version of Art.Teleportacia, the first
art gallery for the Web. Negotiating these mirror phases obviously cast a
long glance backward at postmodern questions of replication and
reproduction, but it also recognized that the cumulative ability to
transfer, transport, translate and transform, all subsumed and made
available under transcoding, had leveled the playing field for a rather
predictable set of artistic games to begin anew in a pioneering context.
Leaping three giant net years ahead to the present, an attentive look at
some recent entries to the catalog will garner attention to a
subsequent and related strategy that has become increasingly popular among
dedicated practitioners. A striking number of current works literally
employ and repeat what one may term an expansive approach to the
transcoding principle: they collect and/or generate structured data
through various, often rather novel, forms of input and then output this
in a scrambled appearance, regularly on rather abstract terms and
generally according to simple, non-semantic rules.

To illustrate this rapidly overflowing genre, three projects may suffice:
Taxi Art,[2] produced by SAS Design in London, uses the GPS tracking of
London taxis, which is already done for booking reasons, to offer visitors
to the site a series of choices for an online artwork drawn by the humdrum
path of taxis on the streets. Pick your minimalist and formalist
preference for aesthetics that largely resemble pie charts or graphs in
the form of lines or circles--then watch the drivers negotiate the traffic
to render your masterpiece. The result: a GPS doodle of urban corridors
that, from a cartographic point of view, would probably require that you
immediately hailed a cab to get around without getting lost. Another
recent example is Goodworld by Lew Baldwin, which can be found on the
Whitney Museum's lofty artport site.[3] Here you pick any URL and let the
site transform your location into colorful blobs for images, where the
color field is an aggregate of dominant RGB values in the original, and
emotive smiley faces for text. An almost analogous gig for music is the
developing WebPlayer[4] by Pete Everett, which currently prepares the
stage for a filtering of an URL into soft, luscious sounds transcoded from
the ASCII values of the hypertext, sans recurring code brackets. Somewhat
unexpectedly (unless you first read the process notes that pays homage to
how mathematically inspired composers turned repetitive numbers--base note
sequences--into sweet music), the result resonates more like naturalistic
jingles from the oceans than previous sounds sampled from data and voiced
by tinny 386 processors to strike a distinctive digital note.

This net can easily be cast much broader and wider in all directions to
catch numerous projects that indulge in the type of transcoding alluded
to. But to save the impressions formulated thus far, we can discern the
repeated predilection toward taking ordered stacks of data and reshuffling
the packets: GPS traces in longitude and latitude turns to coordinated
strokes, graphical RGB values coalesce in bland color fields and HTTP
rocks on through the speakers, all according to Radio Taxis, Goodworld and
WebPlayer respectively. The reason all this reverse-engineered data mining
and logical-mathematical magic can unfold is of course due to the common
binary denominators of all data: 0 and 1. Translated into the bitplane
through binary notation a decimal value of, let's say 97, will read
1100001. But this string of 97 reinterpreted through ASCII code is in fact
the *a* in the fact just presented and represented (given that this
message does indeed appear as ASCII). And the 97 may of course also be
attributed, and reassigned, to a medium dark pixel value in an image or
the pitch of a programmed tone. Consider, then, that this 97 probably
already circulates around the Internet in many wrappings, from the corner
of a company logo via the central *a* in every wording of Mac to a
frequency in an embedded sound object, and you get the basic picture (or
word or sound) of the Esperanto-styled computing these projects are
practicing and pointing to. Within this mind-blowing conundrum of the
computer medium lies the rationale why these types of projects are both
incessantly compelling and instantly mundane: on one hand, since we are
indeed talking binaries here, their claims to isolate the multifarious
behavior of data bits to their own limited operations subdues the
potential madness of an arbitrary bit architecture and thereby grounds
protocols in an oppositional, highly reasonable context. But, on the other
hand, the projects themselves reveal these operations to always already be
active and working away within this selfsame structure. It is not
insignificant in this regard that most transcoding endeavors
appear to indulge in rather semantically poor output at the front end. In
the three works discussed, we get abstract shapes and patterns along with
base sensory information scattered in HTML grids and mellow MP3 music
submerged in atmospheric harmonies. This choice, and it is crucially a
choice on the scripters/programmers behalf, basically serves to move away
from the widely conversant computer literacy promoted by transcoding,
which implies the successive application of established protocols, toward
the linguistic plight of translation as transformation. The flexible
exchange rate of bits remains the modus operandi, but the currency of the
data outlet fluctuates in value--from ordered to scattered, meaningful to
meaningless and so on. Given the identically encoded origin here, this
treatment signals a distinctly asymmetrical rupture in prevailing systems
of representation and signification, making interconnected expressions
appear equal despite very obvious differences.

To better appreciate this fascinating move, a tangential shift into
semiology is desirable to avoid completely sidelining the fact that
computing has, or even is the product of, a cultural history.
Traditionally posited as a science of signs, semiology generally operates
with a tripartite structure of sign, signifier and signified to elucidate
the relationships between, very roughly speaking, things, words and
people. The largely unstated goal is to reveal something about the
processes of signification with the aim of securing an unequivocal ground
for meaning itself--dubbed the transcendental signified in semiological
jargon. A short, chronological list covering how this science has
developed, and implying how semiology is understood in this context, may
include Charles Sanders Peirce, Ferdinand Saussure, Roland Barthes and
Jacques Derrida, but this narrow trail of groundbreaking changes to the
discipline branches out just about everywhere, for example into the
psychologism furthered by Jacques Lacan, or, for those more familiar with
photographic theory, the psychosemiology of Victor Burgin. (I introduce
this list to basically avoid repeating every argument here and refer
anyone interested in a fuller discussion of semiology to literature by the
aforementioned authors.) Only roughly sketching this particular context
serves to drastically shorthand the above scenarios for how the sign,
signifier and signified interact, what roles they respectively serve
within the prescribed signifying chains, and even how or by what each
entity and each link is constituted. Needless to say, every author
mentioned gradually gets entangled in solving questions raised by their
own arguments. But the contested point of finding a locus for logos,
attached to these conjectural contortions, is of course far from trivial
and essentially perpetuates the debate. The important legacy of immediate
use here is that the presupposed division of sign, signifier and signified
prevails; it is of direct relevance to how the concept of transcoding is
built into computer logic and accordingly understood and practiced within
new media theory and

Having acknowledged that the distinction between signifier and signified
is problematic at the root (as it relies on the unity of the sign to make
the concept present in and of itself through, and despite of, this
opposition), let us turn briefly to a quote from an interview with Jacques
Derrida conducted by Julia Kristeva before returning to a more
comprehensive discussion of computer transcoding. Speaking of the
opposition between signifier and signified Derrida notes:

That this opposition of difference cannot be radical or absolute does not
prevent it from functioning, and even from being indispensable within
certain limits--very wide limits. For example, no translation would be
possible without it. In effect, the theme of a transcendental signified
took shape within the horizon of an absolutely pure, transparent and
unequivocal translatability. In the limits to which it is possible, or at
least appears possible, translation practices the difference between
signifier and signified. But if this difference is never pure, no more so
is translation, and for the notion of translation we would have to
substitute a notion of transformation: a regulated transformation of one
language by another, one text by another.[5]

Translation, to playfully paraphrase the same again in other words,
implies the seamless movement of pure signifieds across platforms and
formats (languages and texts) that the signifying apparatus supposedly
leaves untouched. It denies any precarious intertextuality, invoking a
chain of substitutions, in favor of an original that effectively surpasses
any and all transformation.

The popular new media concept of transcoding does indeed speak of a
limitless and highly effective translatability. Coupled with the
associated premise of numerical representation, it proposes that the
application of protocols to numbers has conjured up a science that
programs closure into every transaction, every translation, and every
transposition of what presents itself, in each transmuted instance, as the
transcendental identity of the signifier/signified. There is an
unprecedented equivocality at play here, one that operates in the dark
passages of hardware and comes to light through software, and which is
consequently instrumental in separating itself (and its objects) from the
elucidating passage of the signifying operations. Translation, practiced
as the aforementioned difference between signifier and signified,
consequently succumbs to a science of logical-mathematical notation. As
such, it signals the practical apotheosis of semiology, which has
precisely been conceived of as a *science* of signs to break the
metaphysical bounds. Hence the longstanding semiotic project--founded upon
the tripartite sign, signifier, signified--reaches a certain *organic*
totality through computerized transcoding, bringing the necessary
presupposition of a priori, an innocent and independent writing before the
letter, to communication.

What is not yet accounted for in this view (although it is there through
the founding signifier/signified opposition) is the move that previously
brought out the psycho prefix and applied it to semiology. The signified,
although attributed to the signifying chain that revolves around the
elusive conglomerate of a sign, may instead be part of a general
psychology, a scenario of mind over matter seeking a uniform social body
with a cohesive psychology to ground the sign in a detached collectivity.
This position, explored by Barthes through the gathering concept of myth
and more directly by Burgin in his reliance on Freudian psychoanalysis,
should of course not be discounted with regards to affective, as a
counterpoint to effective, data. The very human back/front end of
transcoding will of course always be subject to the same semantic
mysteries as any pre-digital entity when it comes to these instructive
semiotic structures. The key point, however, is that the appearance, the
coming into being, of the signifier/signified through transcoding hinges
on the murky fusion of zeroes and ones--the base, western metaphysical
counterpoints that now crucially couple through a machine and not mental
conjunction. Although this latter digression is ripe with the usual
analogies of mind and machine, the link between semiology and psychology
when it comes to computer operations essentially broadens the usual turns
of the logical circuit by further implicating a range of associated
discourses in the central transcoding principle.

But despite the documented and discussed ability of transcoding to
transform, witnessed in the listed works and noted via Derrida, it
appears that the representational claims to metonymy rather than analogy
actually conjure up directly _translatable_ aspects that perceptively and
conceptually manage to fully survive this revolution. In Taxi Art, does
the work not indicate a blinking orange, signaling left or right, at every
turn of the colorful geometric drafts? Does Baldwin's Goodworld not bring
an inebriated textual smile to blurry color vision only through comparison
with the clearly aliased input URL? Do you not descend into soundscapes of
corresponding hypertext when WebPlayer embarks on its heavily transmuted
aural voyage? Isolating such experiences, sensory as well as conceptually,
makes for a far more complicated analysis of transcoding. The effect
produced and described is doubly stunning: on one hand
logical-mathematical notation denies to confirm the, in lack of a better
word, theology of transcoding as the virgin passage of translation; on the
other, it retains an empirical contingency of unprecedented
representational and signifying power. It may very well contest the
formalism of equivalence by logically and mathematically scrambling the
bits beyond recognition (in a classical representational sense), but the
overriding yet obscure science of this operation, the alchemic feat of
numbers and logic, brings an overwhelming empirical closure to the
experience, a strangely distorted yet comforting sense of deja vu. What
sunders then ultimately unites; numbers break apart but finally add up.
The checksum of all this is that each and every one of these projects, and
they only comprise three exemplary instances of an overwhelming trend,
believe in the divine translatability of transcoding to the extent that
complex semantic devices are readily and purposefully sacrificed for a
metaphysics of the excruciatingly simple, reflected in Euclidean
cartography (Taxi Art), typographic emoticons (Goodworld) and the Muzak of
the deep network (WebPlayer). This reductive approach to the sign
obviously echoes the overwhelming progress of logical-mathematical
notation, but crucially it does not fundamentally question the unity of
the semiotic division, or the universal scientifcity of the process that
now brings it to bear so fancifully and persuasively. On the contrary, the
troublesome collaboration between applied science and metaphysics that
gives rise to a pre/post-scientific empiricism has reached its apotheosis
in transcoding, and this is indeed the sign of our times.

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[1] Lev Manovich, The Language of New Media (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001)
[5] Jacques Derrida, Positions (Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago
Press, 1981), p. 20.

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