Conceptual Categories and the Creative Process:

The Shifting Conceptual Hierarchy:

Art (and most other forms of human activity) can be contextualised with the help of a conceptual hierarchy. On one level "Art" includes literature and music -while on another level it limits itself to the visual arts -or perhaps even painting. However, even the concept of "painting" covers a multitude of sins and "visual Art" can include printmaking, photography and perhaps even film and video.

Sometimes these catgories become unstable shapeshifters as they move from one context to another. Strictly speaking "sound art" is presumably not part of "visual art" -although it is part of "time-based art" which, in turn, came out of a primarily static tradition of "visual art" trying to adapt to a dynamic and increasingly faster moving world.

Interrogating the Categories:

So perhaps the true measure of creativity in the arts can be found in the nature of the dialogue between these various categories. How does "painting" react to "film", how does "sculpture" react to "painting" -or "printmaking" to "photography"?

 One might also question the value of such categories -do the various media provide useful tools which can function as different "languages" which allow for the creative development of new insights because of the nature of the medium -or do the various traditions only hinder the thinking process by imposing outmoded and useless standards on the artist? Does "religious art" have anything to say to "secular art" (or vice versa) and how does "commercial" and "applied" art relate to "fine art"?

Maybe the categorisation process can help in articulating the dialectic between "progress" and "preservation" -or between "revolution"and "continuity". While some artistic traditions look forward to the way human experience might evolve by being enriched by an embracing of the new -other traditions look backwards to find value in a continuity with the past. While some artistic practices can become laboratories for the future -others can become havens which protect, preserve and develop our understanding of the past.

The Dialogue between Traditions:

As a consequence, it would seem that (apart from those who feel the need to work within the confines of a specific tradition or medium) -in general, the value of any artistic tradition lies not so much in itself as in its relationship with other traditions. For although non practioners, may value some specific message (or set of messages) presumably created by a specific artist -the value of a specific artistic practice is probably found more in the way that this practice contributes to the on-going dialogue on practice in art and society: By demonstrating the range and potential consequences of the range of practices currently available to the artist and their public.

If this "dialogue on practice" is a complex and continually shifting set of beliefs about the nature of the medium -which is difficult enough to follow when dealing with traditonal media in an art historical context -then how more complex must it be when trying to integrate more recent technologies into artistic practice.....

Diversity in Unity:

On one level, technology seems to be solving the debate about "media" in the arts. As one might expect from a technology based on a "universl simulation machine" (which exemplifies the early 20th centurary mathematical conceptualisation of the computer) -"Digital Technology" is gradually learning to simulate all the existing artistic techniques and is thus apparently reducing them to a single artistic practice.

However, if the dialogue between the different media (and the implied or inherent practices associated with them) is of great fundamental value to a creative arts practice -then perhaps we should be concerned by the subsumation of the variety of artistic practice into a single "mega-practice" which allows no deviation or alternative.

On the other hand, in traditional media, technology does not generally seem to dictate "practice" as much as one might think. If, for example, we look at "film" then the use of the camera by all film-makers has not reduced film-making to a single genre. There are still distinctions between (scientific, artistic and social) documentaries, drama and animation (which, traditionally, has also taken on a large number of forms -involving both images and objects created in a variety of styles). Presumably, "painting" is also based on a single (basic) technology (the application of paint to a ground) and yet even this simple basic process masks a wide variety of artistic practices -which, in curatorial terms, would surely be rather difficult to deal with as a single, simply medium based conceptual category.

Diverse Digital Dogmas:

Indeed, looking at international practice with regard to "Digital art" -we may superficially see a focus on "fotoshop" and "animation" which disolves the conceptual categories -but a closer inspection would reveal a confusing plethora of practices involving the use of both commercial and custom built software and hardware. Current practices now involve a wide range of activities relating to different aspects of digital technology -exploiting their charateristics in different ways. "Web-art" is perhaps different to "" which differs (in varying degrees) from "Software art", "Computer art", "New Media art", "Virtual Art", "Immersive Art", "Interactive Art", "Electronic Sound Art", "Soundscape", "Ambient Art" or art based on games and/or artificial intelligence.

From Image to Process:

Video, animation and the various image manipulation techniques (commercially) promoted under "digital art" generally focus on the image -and mask the greater revolution going on behind the scenes -which is the shift from "image" to "process". True, this shift (which was possibly started by the "parametrical" work of the architect/composer Xenakis in the 60's) has been reflected in the more traditional (non-digital) art world by "performance" and "conceptual" artists such as Joseph Bueys -but in the digital art world (seen or unseen, conciously or unconciously) it is "process" that rules the roost -even though mainstream digital art practice seems to deny this by focussing on ICT and not algorithms (except as tools).

"Digital technology" is fundamentally the "processing" of information (in "digital" form). The original conceptual model of the computer the "Turing" machine -saw "computation" basically as the substitution of one bit of stored information by another bit of stored information. This seems to suggest a division between "processing" and that which is "processed" (the information).

However, (as the Turing machine also tends to suggest) "information" is not a static thing: It has been decribed as "The difference that makes a difference" -in other words, we need something to change -in order to give it meaning (which in turn, may refer to the state of change of something else). When the whistle blows then we might know that it is lunchtime -but if a whistle is being blown continuously then it can signal that lunch is ready only by stopping!

 Indeed, "change" can be important -not only as a carrier of information about something else -it can also be interesting in its own right. It is only when something changes that we can gain insight into the nature of the phenomenon concerned by studying the effects of the change. Without "change" there is also no knowledge. In practice, "process" (and context) not only modify "information" -they define it too. Without the "process" of intepretation "information" simply has no meaning. In fact, this even works on perceptual level. A perceptual signal that stays constant will gradually fade away and not be reconised by the perceptual system.

The Categorical Process:

So, in one sense, it is the concept of "process" that brings us back to the beginning -back to the "process" of categorisation. Not only does "categorisation" help to organise our thoughts and actions, so that we can remain "focussed" (and effective) in our actions, but (as suggested earlier) the "dialogue" between the various categories as to their definition and function also play an important role in the creative process. In fact, the process of categorising the percieved and experienced differences and similarities in various conceptual spaces may indeed be a fundamental part of the creative thought process itself.

Loosing Control:

Indeed, perhaps it is in the area of "conceptual categorisation" that "Digital Technology" reveals its greatest threat to the creative process. Undoubtdly, digital technology is revolutionising our lives -but the esoteric nature of the increasingly ubiquitous machine faces us with a simple choice: Do we alienate ourselves from the principles and practices that underly the practical functioning of the machine that increasingly rules our lives -or do we embrace the knowledge and understanding that these processes might offer us? On the one hand, we can become the helpless slaves of a commercial system based on the exploitation of our ignorance -or we can attempt to become (and remain) the masters of our own destiny through knowledge and understanding.

If indeed the dialogue between the various artistic practices is an important factor in creative development -and if indeed our artists and general population are to master the intricasies of digital technology (or any other social development) -then surely the whole issue of "Digital Art" needs to be approached (and dealt with) within a far wider perspective than that offered by commercial image manipulation and animation. However, this is a complex issue -because experience, expectation, opportunity and "freedom of choice" are all interlinked. One cannot produce innovatory work if the facilities are not available -and even if the facilities are available then they will not be fully utalised if the vision provided by the social and cultural environment is too limited.

Developing Contexts:

It is only within a specific context that objects and processes can be evaluated -because different contexts create different value systems. It is within a specific context that certain skills are developed and others are neglected -or even discouraged.

It is the importance of context that makes it essential to create a wide range of actual and potential contexts -because without a range of contexts there can be no rational choice.

Despite the apparent denial of the value of context and medium by many practitioners of "Digital technology" -it seems that, ultimately, in theory and practice "context" determines everything.

Without the dialogue between the various contexts, creative cognitive development ceases.

Trevor Batten
Manila, Feb 2006

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