Digital Art Traditions -Looking Backwards and Forwards:

It seems to me that in its reletively short history Digital/Computer Art has undergone a number of major changes -which, as happens with many such developments, gradually and apparently seamlessly evolve from one into the other -despite some major discontinuities.

I suggest the following main phases:

1.0. Pioneering Institutionalised Artist/Programers:

In (Britian in) the late sixties and early seventies, commercial computers were evolving from large machines into only fairly large machines. The large IBM machines -with an army of specialised helpers to change magnetic memory tapes or feed stacks of punched cards at specified intervals were being replaced by "mini-systems" which allowed users to operate the machines themselves through mechanical teletypes and punched tapes.

Nevertheless, these machines were still (at least) the size of a large home freezer -and had the memory capacity of only a few tens of kilobytes. They were also expensive and hidden away inside technological or commercial institutions that did not allow easy access. Although, even in the late sixties a few machines were already connected by telphone to other machines.

Under these conditions, an artist wishing to experiment with computer based digital technology would need:
       -The technical knowledge to programme and operate the machine
       -Permission (and instruction) from the institutional owners to operate the machine

It was therefore impossible to use the computer without some kind of institutionally sanctioned theoretical framework which helped to define and mediate the pioneering spirit of the early Digital/Computer Artists.

Later developments have, to a certain extent, "democratized" the use of the computer -but have also had an important effect on the theoretical knowledge base (and subsequent practice) -in ways which might not be entirely positive.

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2.0  The Commercialization of the Computer:

The rise of the micro-technology (silicon layering and etching techniques allowing complex arrays of semi-conductors to be placed on a single chip) lead to several parallel and interacting developments:

-The developmenrt of small (Desktop and Portable) computing systems as practical tools -for a wide range of users.
-The development and commercial exploitation of automated image generation, manipulation and distribution techniques.
-The marketing of the computer as a consumer orientated plaything.

In order to achieve this -the commercial companies building, selling and exploiting computer systems have needed to achieve a number of  (sometime opposing) aims:

-Bridge cultural opposition to "formal" systems of logic and mathematics
                   (achieved by "deformalising" the machine -so anybody can use it).
-Develop an elite of accolytes capable of developing new technological systems
                   (achieved by supporting "technological" research -protected by commercial secrecy and patent laws).
-Develop an elite of  privaleged users capable of selling the systems by developing new applications
                   (achieved by involving artists and other "creatives" in the marketing process).
-Prevent consumers from questioning the system or understanding it
                   (so the exciting mystery surrounding new products can be preserved).
-Develop a system of confusing specialisations and discontinuities
                  (despite being a system that is basically a unifying system based on knowledge and understanding).

The above described process seems to have involved the following basic steps:
          -The commercial development of technological systems (hardware).
          -The commercial packaging of processes previously invented by obscure artists (software).
           -The propagation of the idea that the computer involved "dematerialisation" and was therefore beyond physical systems.
          -The propagation of the idea that all previous historical knowledge was irrelevant when using digital technology.
          -The propagation of the idea that an understanding of the technical processes involved was irrelevant for the consumer.
          -The persuation of governments and their educational systems to adopt and disseminate the above ideas.

The result was the total alienation of the consumer with regard to the technological systems that they were becoming increasingly dependant on. Unfortunately, this alienation has been so successful because it was encouraged and promoted through canonisation by the educational system. Bizarely, this phase seems to have really taken off around 1984 -with the abandonment of all social caution with regard to the development of the kind of repressive (and dishonest) systems -when the situation described by George Orwell in his book (1984) appeared (for the non-observant) not to heve been implemented by the expiry of the title date.

In the post-WWII world -as long as the Iron Curtain divided the European continent (and the global mindset) "totalitarianism" was something only existing on the other side......

In the meantime -the cold war continued to develop military, social, cultural and political systems that were all predicated on a  polarised system.

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3.0  Web-based Euphoria:

The early Post-Communist period (until 9/11 2001) was characterised (at least in the west) by the need to find a new image of the world -as a result of the political and economic collapse of the Soviet Union.

For many people, this was a confusing time. Since WWII, the citizens of the west had been conditioned to accept a polarised world (which was consistent with both a system of logic and a philosophy based on the polarity between truth and falsehood). However, the belief in this polarisation was convenient for those on both sides of the critical divide: Secrecy, and lack of information about the Soviet System was an inherent part of the conflict (similar to the way post 9/11 "terrorist threat" was also maintained in a shroud of threatening mystery and vague rumours).

Those that believed (or wished to believe) in an alternative (non-Capitalist) system -were able to use the lack of verifiable information to preserve the myth of the Soviet Union as a viable system. However, the collapse of the Soviet system made this rather difficult. As a result -there was a general decline in the belief in ideology. This seemed to result in a limited range of intellectual responses: One could become cynical and hedonistic, embrace a romantic belief in the fundamental unity of the human spirit -or one could hope for a new (non-ideological based) pragmatism that might face the new situation fairly and squarely without pre-judging issues on the basis of ideology.

Unfortunately, the increased business oportunities offered by the commercial rape of the newly emerging ex-communist countries -coupled to  the emerging technology of the internet as a distribution system for the previously developed commercial communication tools -allowed the cynics and the idealists to join forces to create a postmodern consumerist ideology based on the vision of universal acceptance of bourgoise (commercial) western values (which they were able to promote via the new technology -thanks to the developing intellectual and physical infrastructure).

For a while, the economic expansion -based on the  exploitation of those who were reletively inexperienced with regard to both the capitalist system and/or the modern technology -created boom conditions, which were (as indeed all such economic explosions are) completely unsustainable.

When the ex-communist markets became saturated (with the problems of capitalism becoming increasingly apparent) -and the financial institutions wised up to the fictions of the "new internet economy" -it became clear that a new economic (and social) paradigm would be required. The stage was set.

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4.0  The current Dialectic between encapsulated Consumers and diverse digital Literacies:

Presumably terrified by the negative publicity given to the Vietnam War, the western politicians (probably lead by Thatcher in the Falklands/Malvinas war) had learned to keep the organisation of the media circus for themselves in time of war. The first Gulf War was contained within a cocoon of secrecy manipulated by the US Military. However, the bombing of (a European) Serbia by NATO forces during the break-up of the Balkans happened just as an idealistic one-world philosophy of "connectivity" was getting of the ground.  As a result, it was difficult to prevent young Serbs from emailing their experiences and feelings directly to friends in the west. The myth of "Simulacra" being identical to "reality" was rather difficult to maintain (for some) when, independant of their belief system -they saw the local landscape exploding unexpectedly before their eyes.

Although the development of the World Wide Web may have given  a platform to a vociferous, idealistic and perhaps naieve group of people promoting new age connectivity and a "collective intelligence" which perhaps denied the value of individual intelligence -it has also provided a series of platforms for commercial and intellectual institutions and individuals -both ancient and modern, both reactionary and progressive. In some ways, the Internet is indeed providing the infrastructure which allows the organised spread of both propaganda and  knowledge  to re-establish itself. In many ways, the post 9/11 internet demonstrates a period of restoration -although it is not yet fully apparent which of the (threatened) traditions currently being restored will prove to be dominant (or indeed if there will be a single (neo-fascist) dominant -or if perhaps an ecology of (potentially confusing and conflicting) discourses will emerge.

Indeed, the interactions between the continuing histories of the various phases in the theoretical and practical development of "Digital/Computer Art" have lead to a wide variety of differing practices -based on a wide range of often conflicting paradigms.

However, perhaps the central dispute remains the "role" of the technology itself: Is it simply a passive "tool" for producing quick results that could basically be achieved in other media? Or does technology itself play a more dynamic role in creating new "media" that actively "mediate" in the development and transmission of ideas? Indeed, what about the role of technology as a "metaphor" -by changing the way we look at the world by providing new kinds of structure for us to use as conceptual models?

Presumably, the future will need to clarify these issues -which may have far reaching implications.

Will "Digital Technology" continue to exploit the consumer's ignorance and enslave the user in a well monitored web of commerical and politically defined restraints -or will the "user" find ways to use available technology in creative ways which help them to understand both the current and alternative systems in ways that support the development of new (and perhaps even more liberating) systems of thought and practice?

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5.0  The uncertain Future:

Consumerism restricts and constrains in many ways (and provides many conflicting messages). By definition, the emphasis is on (generally passive) consumption -as opposed to active invention.  The constant appeal to the consumer to "express" themselves is usually no more than the empty rhetoric of a marketing system that opposes any real creative thinking which might undermine the system. However, perhaps the technology which consumerism provides can also provide opportunities for those who are able to think outside the box.....

The Artist/Programmer is possibly one of the few viewpoints that requiress the practitioner to have a complete overview of the entire process of production -from basic concept to final user.

 Perhaps the integrated approach of the artist/programmer could provide the basic principles for a progressive education system....

In practice, a "good" education system is not quantitively "better" than a poor system -it is often radically different. The challenge is to develop a nexus of educational, production and distribution channels that do not restrict activites to the existing technology which will soon be outdated -but can provide the environment and conceptual framework that will allow artists to develop beyond the existing situation.

I hope that those who are involved in (Digital) Art Education will seize the opportunity to think deeply about the nature (and future) of  "Digital Art" and the national and international infrastructures supporting it.

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Trevor Batten
Manila,  March 2006

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