14 Mar

From Objecthood to Processhood

At the conclusion of a recent meeting of a digital media theory course at RISD, one of my students pointed to a paper sign tacked on the wall. The sheet’s handwriting expressed the single question, “Can computer games be art”? With optimistic resolution, the student suggested that the question has already been resolved by postings on the Internet, and something specific to the context in which this question was brought up, namely, after a three-hour discussion on theory, implied that I might either address the question or accept it in the affirmative.

Art historians and critics have known of an unspoken division in regard to classification at this all-embracing level between those who operate in the world of artmaking and everyone else, whose consistent exposure to that realm of activity is more or less tangential. And it is this latter group, whose inexperience with the empirical details of the studio, the crit, the gallery discussion, the collector’s whim, the curator’s research, and the administrator’s concerns translates into an abstract compensation by determining or denying in a once-and-for-all manner something like art status of an object, nay an entire class of activity, such as we have seen in the aesthetic question of computer games.

Surely, the question, although irrelevant to the conventional artistic establishment, deserves at least something of an answer. But, lacking disciplinary or theoretical focus, from whom? And, despite the force of its affirmation, is this the only way to frame it? We should wonder why this “Is it art?” question’s naiveté should be addressed with its inborn sense of categorical, binary yes/no resoluteness in which some popular culture critics, reluctant to contextualize it within at least some of the last century’s developments in conceptual art, have insisted on framing it. Even so, this persistence resembles that previous chapter in modern art when, in the early 1920’s, Alfred Stieglitz, working to legitimate photography within the gallery system, writes to the man most infamously devoted to undermining that system, Marcel Duchamp, asking whether a photograph can have the status of art. The consequence of this for new media art is something I have previously considered.[1] In that context we must see in Stieglitz someone who, working as more than an artist, and for fifteen years running a gallery devoted  “to advance photography as applied to pictorial expression” is continually assembling and promoting exemplars for a growing canon of photographic art. Yet here he becomes the ironic outsider posing the categorical art question about the creative product of a then-new medium.

Stieglitz, unlike Duchamp, did not come to photography through an art school education or even the practice of traditional art medium. His artistic advent would follow the unlikely trajectory of mechanical engineering, whose model was also central to his historic contributions to the development of the photographic medium. To be sure, whether inescapably rooted in the aesthetic sensibilities of the man or by witness to the ineffable evolution of his photographic eye, something coalesced in him such that mechanical precision progressed through artisanal perfection and arrived finally at mature consciousness of the photograph’s aesthetic promise. At that point, Stieglitz’s own attitude changed; photography became less the medium to be perfected than the art form to be cultivated. Nor is this unique to Stieglitz or even to photography; this progression from instrument craft to legitimate art form is the same one that Stanley Cavell locates in the origins of another – film. As it was with Stieglitz’s interrogation of photography, it is also true for Cavell’s questions of film’s aesthetic, whose genesis he finds, with Panofsky’s own and in opposition to Bazin’s, that it was not “an artistic urge that gave rise to the discovery and gradual perfection of a new technique; it was a technical invention that gave rise to the discovery and gradual perfection of a new art”.[2] The processual art always evolved from the objective medium.

Film, even more dependent on complex technology than photography, has never been defined by the gallery system. It is a medium capable of thriving within as well as outside it, for as film became “the movies”, it grew into a commercial empire not through the institutions of art but of entertainment. And thus, each world – art and entertainment – has adopted its own designation for it: if we can take up the relevance of films as art for themselves, and aesthetically important to the artist, we can speak equally germanely of movies as entertaining for us, and financially profitable to the producers. Big money and high art have always been brutal antagonisms, and the commercial film has evolved to serve precisely the industry whose adjective describes it. The presumable integrity of both art work and artist that depends on the romanticization of solitude and sacrifice was the single holdout against the ostensible aesthetic depravity of commercial film’s evolution in the 1930’s as a product of a draconian studio system, something that had also begun to happen with music. Today, of course, the preponderance of recorded music and film is commercialized, a description that impugns it as financially profitable but too often aesthetically impoverished. As social critique, this charge is less directed at the nature of the work than at the expectations of its audience, for it is the latter that drives the demand for popular entertainment. In this sense, the term “mass market”, and not just the word “commercial”, is also an inverse of high art. Not without irony, this distance from the masses allows high art to become profitable without losing claims to special integrity, since now many works of art, contemporary as well as classical, fetch auction prices exceeding the production cost of many commercial films. If there is a palpable shade between creation and production in this paragraph, it is one that will be expanded upon shortly.

The perplexity surrounding fiscal relations with which I have opened here is the beginning of several contradictions about the manner in which to regard the computer game, fundamentally an entertainment apparatus whose own industry in turn (it bears repeating) exceeds that of commercial film in sales and revenue metrics. Historically, photograph and film have seen a family of critics arise, writers with balanced and complex positions like Panofsky, Bazin, Metz, and Cavell, and promoters like Stieglitz – all ensconced in the problem of each art’s own ontology and the medium’s own authenticity within it. Games have not yet had that lineage, although the legitimacy of any art form always depends on the solidity of the critique that engages and presents it. Rather, the argument for games as art is frequently made through dint of retrospective claim, an authority akin to the sort of baptismal claim that allowed King Henry VIII to annul his own marriage by creating the religion that permitted it. This does not lessen the integrity of the game in itself, but that knee-jerk endorsement denies the role that history can and must play in determining the status of any expressive form as art — not as commerce. Indeed, proponents of photography and film emerged shortly after the medium had already been developed and explored principally as an optical device. Any claim that photography and film were from the outset motorized by an aesthetic program is patently untrue. Their historical trajectory followed that of the “technical invention that gave rise to the discovery and gradual perfection of a new art”. The commercial system that games have exploited, on the other hand, was already in place at their birth; it is an extension of the one that partly led to the other, co-created by the commercial film’s invention of the entertainment industry. This is the same industry that replaced an existing culturally integrated entertainment institution — Vaudeville. It is an industry that, even further back in time, did not exist at all during photography’s infancy, which is precisely why Stieglitz created the Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession, a name whose triumphant agenda we would do well to reflect upon. The cosynchrony of distinct stages of culture industry with the evolution of a technical art form’s products, then, is the question to probe, rather than whether any such form, by commercial emancipation, can claim arthood through institutional relationships, whether of support or antagonism.

Which brings up one of the more often-cited apologias for the art status of the computer game, the essay “Games, the New Lively Art”.[3] The position taken here and articulated elsewhere by Henry Jenkins, the scholar of popular culture, champions games as art on normative, if paradoxical grounds. Jenkins documents a personal epiphany encapsulated by the experience of attending two panel discussions at a conference. In the first panel, we are told, the discussion was “sluggish and pretentious” – and, it seems, disdainfully predictable: “I knew exactly what they were going to say before they opened their mouths”. By contrast, the discussants in the second panel “were struggling to find words and concepts to express fresh discoveries about their media; they were working on the very edge of the technology, stretching it to its limits, and having to produce work which would fascinate an increasingly jaded marketplace. They were keeping on the top of their toes trying to learn not only from their own production practices but from each other.” We don’t know what was sluggish, pretentious, and predictable about the first discussion, since no quote, paraphrase, or summary is provided in this account. However, the argument for computer games as an art form is undergirded by this dichotomy, which despite its paucity of quotation seems incongruous to the claim, given that the first group Jenkins dismisses are not theorists but digital artists. The second group, we are told, comprises game designers. Now, it seems to me that claims for the art status of any medium ought to be made in a manner that integrates, rather than rejects, the experience of its artists. This is not the essay’s only paradox, since the author’s dismissal of artists, on the grounds that their language appears too abstruse to him, is an anomalous position to assume for a professor writing at the time from a senior faculty position at an Ivy League institute of technology. And if, as the contrast between digital artists and designers implied, creativity marks the accelerated pace of the designer, how should we understand the common frustrations of game designers whose creative work is constrained, controlled, or curtailed by constraints of game industry structure rather than free? [4]

Jenkins’s essay, whose title alludes to a 1924 defense of popular culture as an art form, is posed as a redux to cultural critic Gilbert Seldes The Seven Lively Arts. From the outset, it might be said that Seldes aimed to present not a defense of the moving picture as art, but rather to “establish the picture as a definitely accepted form of entertainment”.[5] Lively art here must read synonymously with the latter term; the defense was important by itself, it did not seek to relocate the moving picture into  the legitimating context of gallery space. But the difference between art and entertainment is not one of legitimacy, it is one of topicality.  An art medium such as painting comprises conventions organized as genres – landscape, portrait, abstract – ones wholly unrelated to the fashionable trends and tides of cultural taste. An entertainment form, by contrast, is always a direct echo of the contemporary moment; it is a frame in the cultural skein reflecting the self-assertion of a society, not of an artist, a genre,  or a medium. Correspondingly, Seldes’s essay must be balanced in light of our evolved understanding of the film medium not as art but as entertainment, since the archaic appeal of one-sided proclamations of artistic merit such as that “the drama film is almost always wrong, the slap-stick almost always right”[6] are not credible except as portrayal, however legitimate, of a bygone social moment.

There is a second claim in that essay, evinced in wholesale generalizations that “games have been embraced by a public that has otherwise been unimpressed by much of what passes for digital art”. The premise now is that a very particular public – one which, like Jenkins, expresses disdain of new media art – has decided what can become art within the digital medium, while excluding whole-cloth the products of any currently evolving practice. The following thought is even more polarizing in that “contemporary efforts to create interactive narrative through modernist hypertext or avant-garde installation art seem lifeless and pretentious alongside the creativity and exploration, the sense of fun and wonder, that game designers bring to their craft”. For scholars, authors, teachers, and critics, who, like myself, work with the new in digital media departments and elsewhere in support of digital artists, at least one question in this argument is compulsory: what specific installations are “lifeless and pretentious”? What works might be “passing” for digital art? Might the impostors be the raster-based creations of early artists like Charles Csuri or Manfred Mohr? Or perhaps, more recently, the two-dimensional screen-based work of Mark Napier? Or the interactive poetry of Stephanie Strickland? Or the participatory projections of Camille Utterback? Or real-time data sculptures like Mark Hansen and Ben Rubin’s Listening Post? Or the kinetic-semantic installations of David Rokeby or Jeffrey Shaw? Or the conceptual work of Caleb Larsen? These are but the most obvious names in a plurality of contemporary traditions whose art status has not been dismissed but rather critiqued, theorized, and, because of that deliberation, secured in the evolving canon of digital media art. Nevertheless, games are, in the Jenkins view, not merely superior to such art, but to all arts, as the essay quotes another apologist who, describing important characteristics of the computer game, nonetheless adopts a competitive view of aesthetic merit in which games excel at art better than art does:

Because the videogame must move, it cannot offer the lapidary balance of composition that we value in painting; on the other hand, because it can move, it is a way to experience architecture, and more than that to create it, in a way which photographs or drawings can never compete.

It is telling that this broadside comes from a book perhaps too literally entitled Trigger Happy: Videogames and the Entertainment Revolution. We might note that although the revolution in question relates to entertainment, not art, the presumption is that the latter can be eclipsed by the former.

To advocate the art status of computer games by undifferentiated dismissals of art would seem not merely logically untenable but also counterproductive to any program of digital media aesthetics within which both the digital game and the digital work of art or literature ultimately belong. But Jenkins posits more than an aesthetic polarity. There is also a critique of how the institutions of art have excluded digital works. Some reference to the historical works of Ken Knowlton, Manfred Mohr, Charles Csuri and so many others who worked in the 1960’s and 70’s would have made evident the time span – at least several decades – before any expressive medium attains the maturity necessary to be co-opted into the museum. And, as if on cue, London’s Victoria and Albert Museum is currently hosting exactly such an exhibition of digital art which includes both the seminal work of these early artists and more contemporary examples, for knowledge of which I am grateful to George Fifield. In all of  this, we should include the presence of digital art in festivals, as I have discussed elsewhere.6 Perhaps Jenkins reviles not art but an outdated stereotype of its tradition. Blending his mentations not with the process of computer games but rather their objecthood, Jenkins fashions nearly Surreal vilifications mockingly ascribed to the ghastly fiber of the contemporary:

I will admit that discussing the art of video games conjures up comic images: tuxedo-clad and jewel-bedecked patrons admiring the latest Streetfighter, middle-aged academics pontificating on the impact of Cubism on Tetris, bleeps and zaps disrupting our silent contemplation at the Guggenheim. Such images tell us more about our contemporary notion of art – as arid and stuffy, as the property of an educated and economic elite, as cut off from everyday experience – than they tell us about games.

Rather, such derisive images say more about the projections of ignorance by someone outside art world practice, history, or criticism – and downright angry about it – than anything else. This is not the nefarious distortion that new media art should countenance, especially from an otherwise articulate advocate of electronic media. Nevertheless, art cannot be, in the Jenkins account, the possible product of attention, sustained and reflected through the care of a developing practice. Rather, it can, at most, become but a by-product of insipid meandering:

As Hal Barwood explained to readers of Game Developer magazine in February 2002, “Art is what people accomplish when they don’t quite know what to do, when the lines on the road map are faint, when the formula is vague, when the product of their labors is new and unique.” Art exists, in other words, on the cutting edge and that was where games had remained for most of their history.

In the art programs and studios I have seen and worked with, art is an accomplishment, it is what happens when people do know what to do; it is not a side effect of buffonery. Beyond attempting a prosecution of art, this aforementioned quote is perhaps too transparently a wish-fulfillment to invert the outsider role of games (and why not happily outsider if the art world seems so banal?) vis-à-vis art by summarily recasting the past century of art as somehow belonging within the center of game activity’s motives. Again we could feel the annoyance of comprehensive characterizations about art, devoid of reference, nuance, or balance, dropped into a discussion of games that should not be absorbing itself with such distractions, much less with self-demeaning and specious competitions about the better art.

Yet a third, unstated implication of that position — but the most decisive — is worthy of consideration. It relates not to the institutionality of the work of art, to include the computer game, but rather to its objecthood. Generically speaking, the presence of the object has been a major constituent of the value function attached to any work. Here, the appreciable mastery of the aesthetic object combines with the conditions of its being, namely as a unique or one of a small series, and puts into play the power of a tension between the temporally distended history of visual art, of which this work is a member, and the irreplaceability of the singular object, whose care and being are controlled by its owner. Through this tension, the desirability of the work derives from two separate but integrated roles, to wit, ones where the beholder is also the holder; the abstract lineage of an extended belief tradition adhering to the importance of art’s development through ages, stages, and movements makes a stop in the present work, and the collector partakes by association in membership within that history. This is the historiographic model of art value that has been contested by conceptual art in the 20th century, art assembled from low-grade materials, art whose works are intentionally non-unique, and art whose objecthood is denied by immaterial conditions of being. What has not happened is the freedom of such art from another dimension of ts being: exchange value. There are instructive ironies about art’s commodity status at a time when an artist like Lawrence Weiner can assert that “the work of art need not be built”, but where the statement, itself part of a work, remains subject to the same commercial and licensing proscriptions as any other artwork. But the most characteristic inference we can draw from this is that art history rarely mentions but continually relies on every work’s exchange value. Membership in the annals of visual history, for a work that cannot be sold, is especially difficult, since, however indirectly, its value also relates to its provenance. The uniqueness of the object, in other words, becomes more interesting as the number of owners of the work increases, the implication being that the work possesses some value that endures through a lengthy succession of exchange agreements. There is no issue here, except as an inversion of the situation with the computer game, whose commercial ontology is more akin to the literary work of art – rather than existing as a unique work with successive collectors, the game and book are released in the form of many identical copies, one for every possible owner, so that the value of those works accrues not through their uniqueness but through their multiplicity, for any book or game that has sold millions of copies becomes valuable for a company, not just a culture, or a reader. Exchange value, it seems, has a role to play  in determining aesthetic value regardless of whether a work’s distribution is unique or myriad.

And this brings us to that aspect of the distinction between games – and other creative works – that exists independently, rather than because of commercial profit. It is difficult to advocate for any abstract status of an object created and produced principally to sell as many copies as possible, as are many slickly packaged games based on sequels, sports stars, or big studio feature-movie-based computer games. If this is a kind of production that anyone can credibly argue, to counter-quote Jenkins, “passes for digital art”, while other art is not, then its logic is impossible. While we might assert that books – including literary masterpieces – do conform to this pattern, this is not true. There are countless works of literature, one thinks immediately of Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago, created under conditions where profit could not be possibly have been the force motivating their creative intention. Although crafted in the grueling conditions that artists know too well, once published, these works would come to assume a new incarnation based on mass reproduction, and through it capture a world audience. This chrysalis, through which it makes sense to produce a maximum number of copies, does not detract from the art status of any such work. All that this tells us is that a work like Solzhenitsyn’s is created in one reality and produced in another. Games of the arch-commercial kind I mentioned are not of that ilk. Their creation is famously beholden from the outset to conditions of maximal commercial production to such a degree that the first of these modes is functionally indistinguishable from the second. Creation in this collapsed creation-production sphere is tightly controlled, budgets are made, resources are assigned, marketing plans are written, and timelines are put in place to control every phase of the work so as to guarantee the anticipated profit margin. This has often been expressed as a major frustration of creative souls who work in game companies, film and design studios, and publishing companies. As this is not the reality of the artist, the critical crossroad is inevitably encountered when creative individuals who work for such companies must decide whether to follow the path of the game artist, perhaps forged from previous art school education, or of the game designer, an employee of a corporate environment’s conduit of creation in the cubicle. Clearly Jenkins favored the latter, without considering how their own steady employment in a commercial system of that size also allowed them to be less tentative about their craft. Designers are less theoretical not because they disdain theory but because they must operate within the utilitarian mode and temporal constraints of commerce, rather than the discursive spaces of art. And the distinction ought also to be made between the corporate game designer and the independent creator. For the latter, game studies and theory comprise an ever-important dimension — we can see in individualists like Jesper Juul or Gonzalo Frasca examples of the designer-theorist extraordinaire. But even as regards the corporate sphere, there is no objection to this line of work, which is like unto that of the graphic designer or stage designer for any theatre company. Integrity and constraints are endemic to every profession. What is problematic is the presumed elevation of that kind of practice over another in the name of art, particularly when history’s trajectory has run so polemically opposed to it and when the argument is more fully opinionated than fully informed.

And so, this distinction between creation and production, obfuscated in discussions of the computer game, is at the crux of conceptual artists’ commercial jamming of the commerce aspect of art, most contemptibly felt in the auction system, by undermining the reproducibility, stability, and objecthood of the contemporary work of art. Michael Fried’s invective against Minimalism revolves on that practice’s objecthood, made even more problematic in subsequent practice, as the title of Martha Buskirk’s best-known book The Contingent Object of Contemporary Art1 makes clear. And this transformation in the work of art it is not lost on digital artists, despite Jenkins’s heated denunciations. The creation, for example, of digital poetry as thoroughly non-objective points to something whose aesthetic value centers on one substitution at the ontological nucleus of new media art: the one in which process becomes object.

An example of this arose in a recent social occasion with Nick Montfort, the MIT theorist and creator of digital poetry whose series collectively titled ppg256 is an extraordinary case of constrained poetic practice in digital media. Each ppg256 poetry generator is a Perl-based program whose source code is exactly 256 characters long and which produces an endless procession of verses rigorously consistent in form, meter, and occasionally rhythm.4 The invocation of each program is the first part of the performative act, the second being the output produced in real time. In our discussion of aesthetic ontology, not implausibly held in the collegial ambiance of a café, Nick made evident the fact that ppg256 does not — and should not — archive its output. There is no object, only potential literature signified by the code and the process as aesthetic statement. To illustrate the imperative basis of process, rather than object, he produced his mobile phone and connected to his remote server, invoking one of the ppg256 programs, which generated poetry from the ether and to it, while we discussed its ontological characteristics. In this act, he made entirely clear how the potential aesthetic work referenced by the code became real in its process. We might, of course, as we would have done with the works of any of the Fluxus artists, be seeing ppg256 as not only a game but also as play, and as art — in other words, something that is no less art in its transmodal function within and beyond the literary. To speak of it as poetry without play is to reduce its ontology to an old and insufficient category, as does the question on the wall with which I opened this essay. For play here is to be understood synonymously not with the place of expression in any institution, or with the specific vocation which the creator engages, or even the status of an object but with process alone, something that remains ubiquitous to all media forms and genres of digital creativity. This is where we are all going.

Nick Montfort invoking ppg256 via mobile device

Nick Montfort invoking ppg256 via mobile device. Note source code at top and verse output beginning directly underneath.

Cambridge,
March 2010.


[1] Francisco J. Ricardo, “Until Something Else: A Theoretical Introduction,” in Cyberculture and New Media, ed. Francisco J. Ricardo (Amsterdam/New York, NY: Rodopi, 2009), 3.

[2] Stanley Cavell, The World Viewed (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971), 38.

[3] Henry Jenkins, Games, the New Lively Art (2000).

[4] As writes one designer against a popular myth:  “Designers are creative souls with the freedom to make worlds: Er…  Nope.” (http://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/AnthonyHartJones/20091127/3664/Game_Designer_As_A_Dream_Job.php).

[5] Gilbert Seldes, The Seven Lively Arts (New York: Sagmore Press, 1957 [1924]), 3.

[6] Ibid., 7.


Bibliography

Buskirk, Martha. The Contingent Object of Contemporary Art. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2003.

Cavell, Stanley. The World Viewed. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971.

Jenkins, Henry. Games, the New Lively Art, translated, 2000. Available from http://web.mit.edu/cms/People/henry3/GamesNewLively.html.

Montfort, Nick. Ppg256 Series — Perl Poetry Generators in 256 Characters, translated, 2009. Available from http://nickm.com/poems/ppg256.html.

Ricardo, Francisco J. “Until Something Else: A Theoretical Introduction.” In Cyberculture and New Media, edited by Francisco J. Ricardo, 1-22. Amsterdam/New York, NY: Rodopi, 2009.

———, ed. Literary Art in Digital Performance: Case Studies in New Media Art and Criticism. New York: Continuum, 2009.

Seldes, Gilbert. The Seven Lively Arts. New York: Sagmore Press, 1957 [1924].

One Trackback

  1. [...] J. Ricardo of RISD’s Digital+Media Department has written a deep and detailed blog post, “From Objecthood to Processhood.” In it, he defends artists, their work, and their discourse about the digital, responding to Henry [...]