Pit Schultz on Wed, 27 May 1998 16:58:59 +0200 (MET DST)

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<nettime> S.T. Pope: Web.La.Radia

[pre-published on nettime with permission by the author /p]


--Social, Economic, and Political Aspects of Media
  Art and Art Technology--

 Stephen Travis Pope
	Research Director: Center for Research in Electronic Art Technology
	Department of Music, University of California, Santa Barbara
	Santa Barbara, California, 93106 USA
	Email: stp@create.ucsb.edu, WWW: http://www.create.ucsb.edu/~stp/
	Originally appeared in "Proc. of the Salzburg Symp. on Arts and the
       Internet,"  Mozarteum Academy, Salzburg, Austria, January, 1997.
	Appeared in abridged form in "Proc. of the 1997 ICMC," avail. from
       the ICMA.
	An expanded version of this text is to appear in "Computer Music
       Journal" later this year.



 This informal essay addresses the current status and trajectory of
media art and media technology. In formulating my ideas on these
topics, I found myself being drawn away from my usual technical
concerns, and increasingly to the sociology, economics, and political
relationships of electronic media art and its modes of production and
There are several rather bold statements below on the subject of new
media art and art-making on the world-wide web, and I rely heavily on
a series of quotes taken from the literature to make my points,
without the implication that I necessarily agree with every one of
I take a critical stance in these comments, but still do not wish to
be considered a "web-Luddite." I use the web daily, and it is a major
component of my research. On the other hand, I am very concerned by
several trends I see in the web culture and feel that it is necessary
to draw attention to them.

-=Music, Technology, and Media=-

 A number of media theorists have noted that the most important
changes in the performing arts that have come about due to
20th-century technologies were precipitated by two inventions that
trace their roots back into the 19th century: recording and broadcast.
Sound (and later visual) recording gave the audience freedom of
time-one did not have to hear (watch) an event in the same moment as
its production. This technology also gave rise to the notion of direct
archival of artifacts (recordings) rather than of spoken or written
accounts, which had served as the medium for the recording of history
up to this time. The advent of radio (and later television) broadcast
granted the 20th-century audience freedom of place-an event taking
place in one city could be simultaneously "witnessed" by audiences
throughout the world.
With respect to how these technological advances have changed our
relationship to the arts, however, "many of the elements that are
supposed to provide access to music actually impoverish our
relationship with it" (Michel Foucault in Contemporary Music and the
Public). Now that music-making and music-consuming are completely
disjoint for the majority of listeners, "music has [...] shifted from
a medium of creation to the excessive archiving and consuming
enterprise that Jacques Attali described [in Noise: The Political
Economy of Music]" (Dominique Richard in Computer Music Journal).
Three more recent developments based on the digital technology of the
1970s give us three more "degrees of freedom." Digital sound synthesis
gives the musical performer freedom of gesture-one can control an
organ sound with the gestures of playing a saxophone, for example.
Digital recording and CD mastering give musicians freedom of
production-there is today no significant technical differentiator
between "low-budget" and "high-budget" recordings. Lastly, electronic
distribution, especially via the world-wide web, gives creative
artists freedom of availability-one does not need a major marketing
organization and widespread distribution channels to find an audience
for one's music, graphics, or video.
Many voices in the community have noted that the new media have not
brought significant new art forms or aesthetics with them. "The new
face of computer music is as shallow as it is broad. [...] Rather than
promoting research into basic musical questions, most computer music
now merely substitutes newer, cheaper technology for strings and
pipes. In that sense, the field of music has effectively 'absorbed'
computer music with little or no effect on what music is produced or
our understanding of it" (F. Richard Moore in Computer Music Journal).

-=Sociology of the New Media=-

-Technologies that Empower, Equalize, and Free-or Separate, Rigidify,
and Stratify-

 Technology is, by nature, socially neutral, but much can be
determined by how a new technology is applied within a society.
Especially in the 20th century, we have seen examples of new
technologies used to link people together, to lessen the distance
between the "haves" and the "have-nots," and to make it easier for
every person's voice to be heard. Media theorists often point to the
telephone as a good example of such a technology; they cite the fact
that (in the developed world, at least) telephones are widely
available and relatively inexpensive. This is, however, largely due to
the fact that telephone service has historically been either entirely
state-run (as in most of the developed world) or heavily regulated (as
in the USA). Because of its generally wide availability, we have also
tended to loose sight completely of those who-because of choice,
poverty, geographical location, illiteracy, or other reasons-do not
have access to telephones; they are simply no longer members of
society. Seen politically, this aspect of electronic technology has
led to an even more strongly stratified society. It has "helped to
build the sense of deprivation of man's birthright, and that sense of
deprivation has played a large part in the national revolutions of
post-war Asia" (Indonesian dictator Sukarno, as quoted by Marshall
McLuhan in The Medium is the Message).
This example is intended to show how the same technologies that can be
said to empower people, and to lessen the stratifications within
society, can in fact separate us even more and further enforce
economic and social boundaries. Thinking of the unrealized positive
potential of the new media, I am reminded of a 1960s satirical drawing
(from New Yorker) that shows an adult couple sitting before their
television with one of them saying to the other, "When you consider
television's awesome power to educate, aren't you thankful it
doesn't?" (The Medium is the Message p. 128)
-"Technology, Commodity, Power" and the New Media-
 The technologies of recording and broadcast have been widely
recognized as instruments of economic and social power, and have also
been widely exploited by large corporations according to the
capitalist value structure. "Music has always been about power. Sound
itself is power, and it was very clearly understood in that sense in
traditional cultures. Empowerment is then represented in socially and
economically determined sites, from sacred sweat lodges and
Stonehenges, to cathedrals and courts, to concert halls and
universities, to ABC and MTV. [...] Technology itself is also quite
clearly about power. All tools empower their user [and] electronic
media are the empowered sites of our time. [...] They are the very
core of power in an industrial economy" (Roger Johnson in Computer
Music Journal).
Because there is no mass market for it, and no social power associated
with it, art is being marginalized and replaced by entertainment. "The
social status of modern music is characterized by the fact that an
innumerable mass of people from all classes and layers of the
population consider entertainment music as such, and do not even know
that modern [art] music exists. It is moreover impossible to correct
this view. [...] Entertainment music is the modern instrument of
power" (Heinz-Klaus Metzger in Music in the 'Entertained Society').

-=Art in the Commercial Age=-

 The three major shifts in the art world brought about by the emerging
commercial age are (1) the transition from use value (the value to the
producer) to exchange value (the value to the consumer) as a metric in
the arts; (2) the centralized (and economic-based) decision-making
related to arts production and distribution; and (3) the
centralization of control of the electronic media. One can identify
the 1970s as the dawn of the commercial era in both popular
entertainment music and in art music practice. In the 1980s, CD
technology brought the "freedom of production" described above, and
the 1990s Internet technology promises "freedom of distribution." The
problem is that all of these technologies rely heavily on large
corporate structures in order to function; even though the Internet is
currently a haven for "cottage" industry, there will inevitably be a
consolidation of power in a small number of large corporations, just
as there has been in every other powerful media- and
technology-related industry.

-Mass Market Exchange Value as an Artistic Metric-

 Creative artists, especially in the USA, have long lamented the
predominance of the market as the determinant of artistic success.
"Approval-seeking behavior aimed at the general public is considered
inappropriate in creative individuals [...] but is seen as positive or
even essential in commercial enterprises. [...] The desire for public
approval can be as inhibiting to technological or scientific
creativity as it is to other creative arts. [...] Profound and
powerful changes have resulted from the dissemination of
computer-based technology through market channels-essentially, from
computer music's commercialization, [...] the transition from use
value to exchange value as the common and expected motivation for
technological RD for musical applications" (Laurie Spiegel in Computer
Music Journal).

-Centralized Decision-Making-

 Although the Internet has historically been praised as "the world's
largest functioning anarchy," it is rapidly changing as governments
start to regulate it and large corporations get more and more
involved. "The tendency toward decentralization, even in the face of
the enormous concentrations of power in the entertainment and
broadcasting industries, is an exciting and optimistic sign. [...] In
some circles, there is an argument that technology and information
systems invariably decentralize and thus challenge the very powers
that created them. This has a utopian and romantic ring to it" (Roger
Johnson in Computer Music Journal). "The paradox is that there is a
highly personalized, contained art that fits into the confines of a
small screen, and yet that belongs to a global network that relies on
a huge governmental or otherwise bureaucratic entity to support it.
Personal computers may be just that [personal], but the technology
needed to make them talk to one another [...] relies on just the kind
of establishment that networked art is trying to subvert" (Richard
Povall in Computer Music Journal).

-Control of the Media-

 The optimist believes that new media art will break down the
traditional "art delivery systems" and replace them with an open
pluralistic anarchy run by artists. "Electronic art has little or
nothing to do with traditional gallery or concert hall spaces. It is a
medium that belongs in the ether, and one that is capable of entirely
new models of presentation and creation. If the [galleries and concert
halls] are not to become marginalized themselves in the next century,
then they need to be paying attention to their models of function and
presentation, and to their relationships with creators and audience.
The electronic artist is also at fault in attempting to fit within
this tired construct" (Richard Povall in Computer Music Journal).
The same author, however, states that "true guerrilla art is almost
oxymoronic on the net, and net artists tend to be those individuals
with the most highly developed technological sensibility-white, young,
male, educated, middle class. [...] The capitalist dream of ultimate
world domination (actually, forget the domination, just read 'vast
profit') is challenging the very concept of a free network, and even
the political visionaries are seeing the profit potential in the
world-wide web" (Richard Povall in Computer Music Journal). Even
though I am frequently quite optimistic, I believe it to be hopelessly
unrealistic to expect the current state of affairs-with many
small-scale not-for-profit web content providers and "cowboy" Internet
service providers being the rule rather than the exception-to
continue. I can only cite the histories of radio, film, television,
and recording as precedents. "Surely there are reasons to be
apprehensive about media regulation. The whole history of state
censorship counsels against it. But the increasing concentration of
media outlets in a few powerful hands is creating a compelling
counterargument-that 'the state might become the friend, rather than
the enemy, of freedom' as Owen Fiss puts it in his new book, The Irony
of Free Speech." (Andrew Shapiro in The Nation).

-=Some Observations on the Web and its Future=-

 I would now like to address the world-wide web and its related
technology. Historically, it is important to note that the theoretical
underpinnings of the web come from the hypertext experiments of
Douglas Engelbart and Ted Nelson-work that was centered around
accessing stored text in a non-linear fashion, and on multi-user
interactive collaboration. The two standards on which the current web
is based-HTML and HTTP-are aimed at representing and distributing text
and still images. There is no provision in them for dynamic images,
sound, music, or active behavior-these have all been added on as
afterthoughts and are currently handled by web browsing software via a
collection of different scripting languages and mutually incompatible,
non-portable "plug-in" software modules.

-The Web as an Art Medium-

 It is widely acknowledged that "the content of every new medium
begins with that of its closest prior relative" (Marshall McLuhan in
The Medium is the Message [paraphrased]), as the examples of early
cinema and television demonstrate. The arrival of new media may also
have a liberating effect on the media that they augment or replace.
"It is no accident that the style of impressionistic painting followed
closely on the heels of the invention of photography. Photography
freed painting from the need to be pure representation" (Umberto Eco
as quoted in The Nation). (This raises the natural question of what
effect web-based publishing and distribution might have e.g., on the
print media.) The creator, however, is often the driving factor in the
limitation of a new medium. "Those who adopt a new technology that
they themselves did not create tend to expect [it] to solve problems
inherent in whatever older, more established technologies they were
accustomed to using. The new is usually seen through the filter of the
old, and may be altogether invisible through that filter" (Laurie
Spiegel in Computer Music Journal).
As has often been seen in electroacoustic music, there is also the
danger of being enthralled by the technology and losing sight of the
aesthetical goal. "The jury found that we were magically attracted to
what we dubbed 'true' Net pages-home pages that use technology and
narrative structures that are only available and only meaningful on
the Net, and try to take those a step further. [...] On the down side,
these true Net pages sometimes gorge themselves on new Net
technologies, in spite of the fact that they don't yet know what to do
with it" (Statement of the WWW Jury, Prix Ars Electronica 1996).

-The Web-Station as a Performance Space-

 In Leibnitz's best of all possible worlds, the web-connected computer
could be an excellent performance space (just like the
television-based home theater systems). "Electronic art-and by this
term I mean all the accepted forms that constitute electronic art-is,
ultimately, a personal medium. It tends to be as trapped within its
means of reproduction as it is within its means of production (despite
its paradoxical potential for instant worldwide transmission), and
should be enjoyed by the individual or small group in an environment
where that means of reproduction can flourish-the home, the computer
screen, the telephone, the bar, the automobile" (Richard Povall in
Computer Music Journal). The most critical problem with this stems
from the use of the web as a distribution medium for multimedia
content (see below).

-The Web as a Distribution Medium-

 One of the greatest advantages of the web, and also its most fatal
short-coming, is its "portability"; web browsers run on all manner of
computer and terminal, even text-only terminals with no facilities for
graphical display, let alone multimedia output. Due also to the finite
bandwidth of the underlying wide-area networks, and variations in the
home-to-host connection, it is impossible to configure a multimedia
web site for truly universal consumption (a major portion of our
research at CREATE is looking into solutions for this). In the new
world, it seems that the line between "haves" and "have-nots" is drawn
according to who can afford enough bandwidth to run their web browsers
with image display turned on (without suffering the "world-wide
wait"). Note also that this situation can only be expected to be
exacerbated by the introduction of new kinds of web-TVs, web-boys,
palm-top web surfers, etc., many of which will provide less
resolution, lower bandwidth, and fewer multimedia output facilities.
"The [other] major problems to be addressed in the evolution of
computer-mediated [content] distribution are not just the obvious
technical ones of bandwidth, quality, multimedium formats, and
Internet protocols. These are all being worked on already. The major
problems [...] stem from the entrenched legal and economic structures,
which will fight their own obsolescence, and for which no adequate
replacement structures have yet been designed" (Laurie Spiegel in
Computer Music Journal). This situation is indeed very different from
that at the time of the introduction of the telephone. None of the
"competing" media sought to control its commercialization, and there
was general agreement about the role that the state should play in its
introduction and regulation.

-The Web as "La Radia"-

 So what is the dream? Anyone who spends time reading about the web
will come across ecstatic proclamations about its potential to serve
society via education, the arts, public information, and other aspects
(e.g., commerce). In looking for a good expression of the vision of
what the web could be (were it not for all of the forces I have been
discussing), I was reminded of the Italian futurists of the 1930s and
their grand utopian design for the use of radio: La Radia.
"La Radia, the name that we futurists give to the great manifestations
of the radio is:
(1) realistic;
(2) enclosed at a fixed stage;
(3) idiotized by music that, instead of developing toward greater
originality and variety, has attained a repulsive, gloomy, or languid
monotony; and
(4) a too-timid imitation of the futurist synthetic theater and
words in freedom for the writers of the avant garde.
La Radia must not be:
(1) theater, because radio has killed theater already defeated by
sound cinema;
(2) cinema, because cinema is dying:
(a) from rancid sentimentalism of subject matter;
(b) from realism that involved even certain simultaneous
(c) from infinite technical complications;
(d) from fatal banalizing collaborationalism;
(e) from reflected brilliance inferior to the self-emitted
brilliance of radio/television; (3) books, because the book, which is
guilty of having made humanity myopic, implies something heavy,
strangled, stifled, fossilized, and frozen.
La Radia abolishes:
(1) the space and stage necessary to theater [...]
(2) time;
(3) unity of action;
(4) dramatic character; and
(5) the audience as self-appointed judging mass systematically
hostile and servile, always against the new, always retrograde.
La Radia shall be:
(1) freedom from all contact with literary and artistic tradition
(and attempt to link La Radia with tradition is grotesque);
(2) a new art that begins where theater, cinema, and narrative end
(3) the immensification of space (no longer visible and framable,
the stage becomes universal and cosmic);
  + [...]
(6) a pure organism of radio sensations; and
(7) an art without time or space, without yesterday or tomorrow"
(F. T. Marinetti and Pino Masnata in The Futurist Manifesto).

This manifesto represents an aggressive plan to create a new populist
medium that surpasses all previous media in immediacy, passion, and
social relevance. How does today's commercial broadcasting live up to
this vision of 64 years ago? To what extent can we expect the web to
do so?


My comments above are not intended to cast doubt on the potential of
the world-wide web to serve as a medium for artistic expression; in
fact, much of the research at the CREATE center where I work is
focused on developing new technology for web-based art, and several of
our creative students are busy creating "web-works." I am, however,
very concerned about the web's future as an open, non-commercial
anarchy, and skeptical of its ability to live up to all of the
expectations we have of its future. Perhaps it is a function of my
recent move from the San Francisco Bay Area (where I had lived for ten
years) to "within earshot" of Los Angeles (and Hollywood) that is
making me so wary of the gradual commercialization of the web, or
maybe the combination of this with my on-going frustration about the
state of the public broadcast media in the USA, and the recent
deregulation of the telecommunications market, and the incredible
consolidation in the entertainment media industry in the last year,
and the cut-backs in public funding for the arts...
It is my hope that this essay will trigger a lively discussion of the
issues it raises, and perhaps lead to deeper insights into the
sociological, political, and economic aspects of the future of
distributed multimedia. I do believe that this understanding would
allow us to better control the development of the new media. The
problem that I see is that the new media do not seem to be helping to
solve the crises of aesthetics, audience relations, social relevance,
and economic power in which the arts find themselves today-crises that
were created, or at least exacerbated, by the media of broadcasting
and recording. "Art and discourse in the 19th century distorted and
idealized the external world and celebrated it as Beauty. Modern art
celebrates alienation from that world and idealizes it as Freedom"
(Carol Duncan in Socialist Review). The opportunity is that we keep
the web alive and free as an exciting playground for experimenters of
all sorts looking to invent new forms of narrative, collaborative
creation, and personal expression. "New information and entertainment
services are not waiting on fiber to the home; they are waiting on the
imagination" (Nicholas Negroponte in Being Digital). I remain torn
between these two perspectives.


stp -- Salzburg, Austria, January, 1997
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