05 Apr

Cyberculture’s Perpetual “Until Something Else”

‘Until Something Else’ – A Theoretical Introduction

Francisco J. Ricardo

If nothing fully encompasses what we might mean by the use of the term “cyberculture”, then it is not because the term is vacuous but rather pluralistic, particularly as its ground is the same terrain as social process itself.[1].  Cyberculture, in other words, is no longer distinct from what is implicit to culture in the framework of post-industrial society. With technology as its supramedium, “cyberculture” is the contemporary and transpicuous paraphrase of what the term, revolving around a new industrial model in the late 19th century, “culture” implied to Ferdinand Tönnies. His role in modern sociology, centering on the idea of Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft, is of particular significance as marker for the turning point at which cyberculture diverges most dramatically from prior cultural architectures. Sensing something beyond the constrictions of positivist thinking, Tönnies felt the distance denoted between Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft as precisely what, by 1887, the publication year of the book whose title announces these two terms, appeared to presage major adhesions for social groupings in modern society. In the pole indexed by the Gemeinschaft, commonly translated as community, lies the conceptual inventory of subjective and intrinsic motivations for collective assembly and bonding, while, opposing this specific vitality, Gesellschaft, “society”, denotes the much more instrumental type of gathering that familiarly attends to ad hoc aims: paid labour, civic responsibility, and motives of capital. Cyberculture’s primary challenge to theory turns on the refutation of this boundary, and, consequently, the merging of community and society, dispassionately or otherwise, into a single historical event. But as these poles derive from entirely divergent impulses, they reconcile with singular experience only by the strategy of overlay that signals the contemporary structuration of desire and its expressions through the standard lens and language of existing media, which replace geographical location as the principal condition for assembly, intersubjectivity, and assent. Since this overlay of realms, of expression and media, is motorised by a continual codification of the terms of each domain through waves of technological innovation and obsolescence that permeate contemporary actions, sensibilities, and disciplines, we might look to any of these for an example of this codification through the anxiety that arises from the stylised manufacture of the archaic and the destruction of memory.

It is thus to the extent that culture’s ample retinue of actions are incrementally recoded into the collimation called cyberculture—as a course through what follows the age called modernism—that we might expect to view sweeping acts of convergence reflected on any number of historical examples. These illustrate something like the regularities and patterns of the new casting aside the old in the incessant feast that is this pattern of innovation and obsolescence. We might, because of the persistence of cyberculture’s incipient reconfigurations—often deployed through new technology—easily locate in any major moment within twentieth century historiography markers of the passing of one age and, simultaneously, glints of the one in advent. And so, there is, not entirely surprisingly, one inconspicuous occasion, from a time that we might call the intellectual prehistory of contemporary art, when a succinctly worded letter inscribes a moment in the dialogue between two worlds in the person of two artists, each a sovereign of his own medium:

Dear Stieglitz__
Even a few words I don’t feel like writing.
You know exactly what I think about photography
I would like to see it make people despise painting until something else
will make photography unbearable__
There we are.
Marcel Duchamp[2]

Dating from 1922, this letter, resonating in the uncharted freshness of photography’s early conceptual age, is a pithy riposte to Alfred Stieglitz, who, nurturing concerns about posterity, had stirred Marcel Duchamp in previous correspondence by posing a more transcendental question, “Can a photograph have the significance of art?” It would be neither the first nor the last time that questions would hover at the interface between the historical dawn of a medium and an atemporal, universalizing category, something on the order of absolute status, or to choose Stieglitz’s more personal term, significance. What makes the question permanently relevant is the premise, summarily anticipated by Stieglitz, that the standing of any medium will not merely relate to contemporary concerns and their practical necessity, but additionally occupies a manifest place in time from which scholars may construct social, scientific, and cultural retrospectives – which is to say, construct histories and world views. Equally relevant to the contemporary media arts today is that, what in 1922 is asked about photography, a medium without, at that time, a developed place or canon in art, is what is being similarly asked now about the computer game. Since, for Stieglitz, it is not the medium’s continued existence that was in question—this was already assumed by his escalating level of commercial production and breadth of photographic work—the tightness of the embrace, measured via heightened social status, of technology’s relationship to a society’s arts need a new line of explanation.

It is in this manner, by asking about the place that the photographic medium, to choose one kind of medium, will, as a novel venue for artistic production, to choose one kind of production, occupy in the order of culture that Stieglitz presages differential legitimacies that were addressed again, almost two decades later in the galleys of an essay that itself became a defining moment in art criticism. The article is, of course, Avant-Garde and Kitsch, Clement Greenberg’s judgment and oppositional ideology pitting the definably avant-garde, championed as guardian of a society’s aesthetic standards, against the inescapably complement, in the category of kitsch, decried as the unconditional response to impulses of consumer haste and taste. Enumerating four expressive examples, a poem by T. S. Eliot, a Tin Pan Alley song, a painting by Georges Braque and a Saturday Evening Post cover, Greenberg assembles a cultural quartet whose individual elements are “on the order of culture, and ostensibly, parts of the same culture and products of the same society.” In this broadside, etching as it does the presumable boundaries of high art, he finds that, beyond their shared contemporaneity, nothing of cultural consequence actually links them. To be sure, they are expressive tokens from entirely non-contiguous strata of culture, Greenberg’s critical fulcrum. But in these examples there is something more specific to the question of medium and genre than the context-free expression of cultural positions as arguably high or low. That a modern poem, a parlour song, a Cubist painting, and a magazine illustration identify how distinct genres tie to distinct media is what principally puts the question, for us, in the postmodern frame, in a state of contemporary suspense, and has repositioned Greenberg as something of an archaeo-rhetorical relic, if a fiery one. For today, culture’s significant expressive distinctions cut not across genres alone, but also across the specific media that encapsulate them. And operating with special relevance on the plane of the cybercultural, this synthesis is not so much framed as encoded. So while, ironically, Greenberg’s criteria later came to hinge on a ready sense of medium, it is there that challenges against him proved most withering to his undignified transformation from master critic to “worm-eaten colossus”[3]. As art discovered mechanisation, Greenberg’s contractile optical notions of medium, seen against its new modes of actual execution, were overpowered by new media frenetically co-fusing toward bastardisation and able to account for the ubiquitous role of appropriation and remediation in art today

It is this persevering theme’s vital essence—reductive purity—that divides modernist sensibility from its subsequent condition in the postmodern encounter, and which Caroline Jones posits as Greenberg’s major ideological vector[4]. Concern above all else with the narrowest exercise of the expressive strength of a medium is, for Greenberg, the vital modernist principle. The application of the sensory refinement that each medium best supports is the aim: in the case of painting, the interpretive inflection is best received and expressed by means of the flatness of the form; for sculpture, it is the rotational affordance of one’s gaze in three dimensions that produces and transcends the rustle of narrative in the object. Through this interpretive specialisation, the production conditions of each medium could be used to critique the medium itself; paintings that use, evoke, or transcend the backdrop of the level plane are in conversation with the conditions of the flatness of their native medium, and thus, for Greenberg, will definably self-identify with the aesthetic traditions of modernism. The legendary proclamation, Greenberg’s most oft-quoted mantra, was unequivocal: “The essence of Modernism lies, as I see it, in the use of characteristic methods of a discipline to criticize the discipline itself, not in order to subvert it but in order to entrench it more firmly in its area of competence”, and reveals with the passage of time an assumption of stability and transparency of medium that is so unimaginable today that one can look to Greenberg’s own examples as sites of contradiction vis-à-vis the evolving concerns of new media. On one hand, Greenberg erects high art as specifically medium-derived:

Picasso, Braque, Mondrian, Miro, Kandinsky, Brancusi, even Klee, Matisse and Cézanne derive their chief inspiration from the medium they work in. The excitement of their art seems to lie most of all in its pure preoccupation with the invention and arrangement of spaces, surfaces, shapes, colors, etc., to the exclusion of whatever is not necessarily implicated in these factors.[5]

Immediately we might remember, however, that several expressive genres, chief among them that of collage, distort the material and aesthetic integrity of the medium as defined by Greenberg’s prohibitive art panorama. We might consider collage as not-painting, but it is not sculpture, either; its coarse, uneven tatters, cementations of more than immediate expression, announce the commanding plan of bastard form, and thus the cacophony of a staunch anti-formalism. As neither painting nor sculpture, collage could be inaugurated as the first new art medium of 20th century sensibility. The difficulties for Greenberg in approaching this medium point to the persistence of the modernist optic in attempting to frame media that have already entered new paradigmatic space. His Collage essay, focusing on pasted paper, formation of shapes, and interlocking silhouettes, in short, issues of material support and the mounting of elements so physically central to collage, all but ignores the expressive force of that practice as a hard-edged support whose exploration in subsequent political uses underscores the necessary relationship of medium to message that became a cybercultural credo. That Greenberg’s Collage essay, which remains still too under-explored, was to be read through an obliviously formal lens is evident from the resolve with which the word “flatness”, mentioned twenty-four times, characterizes it.

But by 1959, the year that the essay was last revised, collage’s initial play with the newspaper cutout had expanded to include photographs, print matter, and other kinds of graphic material, material whose innate textuality presented just the opportunity that many artists had been awaiting: the literal quality of words permuted visually into a new, hybridised message. So, where Joan Miró had painted or drawn similar suggestively textual works and otherwise merged text and image by illustrating the stanzas of Tristan Tzara, René Char and other poets, the collagists had assembled theirs entirely from pre-existing elements. No longer a form based on original composition, collage was the first of many composite practices—something gradually less framed but increasingly encoded. And when the photograph joins the textual composition, the expressive language of the collage, now as photomontage, becomes dimensionally expanded such that it becomes impossible to overlook the sensory impact favoured by John Heartfield, Raoul Hausmann, and Hannah Höch. To evaluate flatness in their own collages, whose message is transfused with stilted, often anti-propagandistic context, is to favour form against its content and to ignore the essential utility of structure as expression, a balance that defines postmodernism’s production of art and meaning and returns us to the process of encoding as principle of industrial objects’ translation out of culture and into cyberculture. For the composite image produced by the collage is an enunciative literalisation, a recoding in a different scope, of practice of the composite diagnostic profile which the psychoanalyst merges out of disparate observations on the patient, and of the evidence for social portraiture which the anthropologist adduces from fieldnotes on the ethnographic stay, and which the social scientist correlates from observational data. From the orderly fittings of modular architecture down to the interlaced patterns of the crossword puzzle, nothing appears created whole cloth; everything is instead assembled from prefabricated elements, programmed into a phrasal, composite whole[6].

Collage’s entrance into authentic practice, just one of the theoretical inversions that recodes the previously autonomous state of art into something indistinguishably embraced with its mechanism, typifies developments predating but advancing toward the concerns of contemporary art, art in which what divides medium from content no longer matters. This is the blur maintaining that the logic of judgment informing the first half of the previous century can plausibly read in reverse today; Greenberg’s ideas on kitsch, at the level of content, re-evolve as today’s avant-garde at the level of technology. Here, encoded technologically, is what could pass for a cursory account of the typical simulation programmed in virtual game space:

Kitsch is mechanical and operates by formulas. Kitsch is vicarious experience and faked sensations. Kitsch changes according to style, but remains always the same. Kitsch is the epitome of all that is spurious in the life of our times.[7]

Nor did this inversion erupt all at once. The intervening four decades between Greenberg’s homily on form and Baudrillard’s landmark inauguration of postmodern critique, Simulation and Simulacra, would seem to trace a line directly from ideas about the purity of medium to that of complete and vacant derivation, based on the traffic and interchange of signs, a substitution whose performance begins as sensory artifice and culminates as a set of codes proxying for reality itself, as we shall see.

But too easily positing Greenberg as the modernist weathervane in a postmodern cataclysm misses the more complex problems of the art-medium, indeed message-medium, agglomeration of cyberculture in general, outside any disciplinary context. For however inexactly his thinking was termed “formalist”, which is to say, assuming the existence of something like pure universals, and however we might admit of the indissoluble union of medium and production, there is nonetheless, suggestively below the superficial, one major distinction that has emerged, even as others have dissolved. It turns on the problem of individual identity, forged in relation to time and labour as a function of the basic product to be realised. However executed, and whether so for art, manufacture, or information, personal effort interfaces with a long chain of technological supports that shape the gradual output in relation to the complexity of the interaction, the unit of analysis for technology’s formulaic conditions of engagement. Technology’s manifestations, therefore, however extruded, printed, or structured, conform to a perpetual level of exactitude, similitude, and standardisation that is increasingly precise, and decreasingly personal. The archetypal creation of cyberculture, like a collage, is explicitly synthetic, assembled, yet increasingly uniform. This last adjective suggests how post-industrial process points toward thoroughly formalist results. As product or content are historically immediate and of their time whereas form, formalism, and uniformity are abstract and timeless, which is to say, unrealised, we locate ontological tensions underlying the production of cyberculture. For the term cyberculture itself evokes the union of something abstract and timeless – the sense of culture – with something embedded, time-based, and historically contextualised – the cyber-stratum, the present moment of technology’s interleaving within societal function, and with a clear preference for being encoded, the worlds of Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft encapsulated as a single word, a summary formulation. That cybercultural thinking is in essence formal is evident in the arresting immediacy with which pervasive encounters with technology in social, professional, personal, and artistic acts impose logical structure, instrumental thinking, and stimulus-response behaviour. Since such logic, thinking, and behaviour are conditioned early, at the point of interface design, they precede many possibilities for creative latitude at the individual level, imposing constraints of experience whose processing does not entirely originate within the user alone. The presence of design and interaction intrudes on expressive freedom with presupposing inferences that guide, limit, and accompany real-time reasoning with an array of predetermined tasks that the interface performs in producing whatever solution or feedback the given technology generates. As if to underscore a major formalist divide, the major thinking in fact occurs at great temporal remove prior to that which happens in real-time use, such that the design, manufacture, and functionality of an automated teller machine exceedingly dwarfs the mental commitment required to use it.

The same holds for cybercultural experiences like viewing films, chatting via mobile phones, or piloting airplanes. Time and labour have been divided, with the medium presenting much of the problem’s solution already elaborated, leaving little of what executes in the present to its calculation in the here and now. It is by following its idiosyncratic impression of historical progress that technology increasingly alters this balance; to define cyberculture is to witness a further skewing of one particular asymmetry that follows the simultaneous and mutually exclusive aims of increasing complexity of construction on one end in order to augment ease of use on the other. To be sure, the human record provides no other model of collective existence in which social artefacts and affordances are divided so radically, save that which takes root in the rise of technology for organic tasks, let us say farming and transportation – technologies whose own horizons have advanced so far as to merit their own histories. But in those early deployments, the only factor subject to transformation is the labour of a task; the identity of the user remains integral to its pre-technological history; even today, the farmer is no less a farmer because he uses a mechanised tractor rather than a manual hoe. This continuation of role-person is maintained precisely because in the narrowness of the task provided, the technology does none of the actual thinking involved in the work. Thinking is at that stage still exogenous to labour, the latter being the only objective of the technological intervention. But once the horizon of technological possibility on the dimension of labour is largely conquered, the remaining challenges, now cognitive, become fertile ground for a parallel incursion.

It is in the 20th century when, confronted by military circumstances, that governments launch into major initiatives for technological performance in the cognitive rather than manual realm alone: to design anticipatory intelligence into field artillery, to decrypt enemy communications, and to calculate the procurement of materiel to large-scale operations, among other marvels of intellectual execution, these and countless other objectives are attempts at consolidating intelligence into code. For these unprecedented tasks, new varieties of professionals surface; those whose language of specialty is that of formal, uniform, formulaic, formalistic interaction: information workers, knowledge engineers, scientists, researchers. Accompanying machine-assisted cognition is humans’ surrender to technology, and with it, the terms that characterize thinking: terms that can only be approached allegorically as the semblance of identity.

In the sphere of relations comprising the cybercultural, two strands exhibit particularly extensive levels of growth. The first appears through an insistent translation of social and communicative signs from one context onto another. Given that any cyberculture’s foundations are technological, more enduring values, those connected to a personal sense of being, must derive from activities that traffic within them – art and religion provide examples for such recodification. Problematically rooted in pre-modern and early modernist references, symbols and messages of these expressive dimensions have transmuted through the rational analytic gaze of technological means and media and pressed into service in postmodern frames of expression. The allure of old world obscurities is exposed and questioned anew through the gridlike circumstances of a standard model pulsing to the pace of electronic language. Meaning once richly construed through organic, intimate, and localised connection to production–the tilling of land, the tending of livestock, securing a mode of subsistence that is not distinct from the place of existence–is now derived from the widespread and exact manipulation of tools designed to reduce time and space.

But there is another sense in which it makes sense to look at the bridge between Stieglitz, standing as the last pre-modernist of the developed image, insisting that photographs “look like photographs”, and Duchamp, the first conceptual artist, for whom purity of form was anathema, as portal to the concerns of cybercultural signification, layered and multiply codifying. For to the extent that signs with variable meaning populate the cybercultural interface (now that there is no longer an unproblematic modernist landscape), identity, activity, and presence are all brought into focus through the measure of another benchmark crucial to these two artists, though for opposing reasons: that of the image. Here, in the emblem of the image, of imaginal construction, of imaginary virtuality, of the basis for the process of the interface, cybercultural mediation is defined, encapsulated. The image is more than an object, it is a verb, a reagent for representation, and thereby, also for reception. In this, and long before Guy Debord translates the connotational susceptibility of the image to its unmitigated collective commodification as spectacle, Stieglitz’s viewfinder charts a range of imagery that relates intimately to human experience without artifice, either retrograde (informed by painterly façade) or postmodern (supporting cynical second readings)[8]. For Stieglitz, in a manner never possible for Greenberg, the image culminates as the source of reflection that Bergson pursues, while for Duchamp, as for Debord, the image serves as the target for merely probing what it is not.  Duchamp points that absence back to art’s repressive retinal obsessions, while Debord, refracting Walter Benjamin’s elegy for an erstwhile aura, assumes that some iconic enzyme motors a primal code of order historically functioning through progressively autonomous art whose very independence now paradoxically threatens it[9].

The progressive degradation of ceremonial image into serviceable spectacle that Debord’s Society of the Spectacle relates is, of course, too extensive for explication through the exclusively visual. But, however intractable within the constraints of modernism’s value system of commodity exchange, only art has effectively assimilated all the contradictory tendrils that modernism’s social, economic, and epistemic crises has spawned. It has accomplished this multiple adoption by the exchange of one kind of defining structure for another: the transmutation of form into mode. Old distinctions of knowledge, culture, and social stratification, wholly indispensable until the Victorian era, encounter abrupt and sustained challenges in the 20th century, which in fact undermines the stability and merits of category. Intimations of categorical collapse first take root in the intermingling problematisation of form and concept; montage, collage, bricolage, a steady profusion of appropriations, synergies and syntheses construct a model of experience that denies the separateness of observation and context. As the established impressions of form become incrementally replaced by acts of transformation centering on the interpermeation of conceptual constructs, epistemic and expressive emphasis accrues to the manner of construction, which shifts what we might call the enunciative rationale of disciplines toward new conventions of doing, that is, toward new modes of perception that transcend formal opacities.

In prevailing over the individuality of form, this preference for the modal, comprised within the larger overlay to which I alluded earlier, registers in several directions, of which two interest us here. These might be called transhistorical and transformal. While in disciplinary appearance, history is framed as a paradigm of continuity such that the idea of “human history” is phrased as a single object, it is in contemporary thinking that historical moments assume incommensurable separateness from each other, and this separateness is marked by distinctions not in time but in cultural thinking. Hence the Victorian era authenticates as historically distinct from the Edwardian, although temporally these periods are of course directly continuous, and it makes sense to assume that it is by an overlap of cultural markers such as this that we might locate that I mean by transhistorical. Restating Tönnies, Debord’s anchorless Gesellschaft longs for the vital sufficiency of a bygone Gemeinschaft, an autonomy of historical moments that wants cybercultural resolution in the overlay, the simultaneity of two ages sharing signs at a temporal junction. Philosophy and art were the first to document this overlay, with Rousseau’s virtuous ‘noble savage’ and Gauguin’s entrée to primitivism, but most authoritatively later in the early Picasso, through the same modern lens that, in its own temporally continuous but seemingly disjunctive moment, also spawned Cubism. In the analytic Gesellschaft of Great War-era Europe, the intuitive spirit of preliterate art, evoking the Gemeinschaft’s numinous significance, marks the first codification of a transhistorical overlay.

So it is too that an untainted, non-linguistic, perceptual probity connects Stieglitz to the projects of several of his philosophical contemporaries; inarguably to Whitehead and Wittgenstein, and not least to Henri Bergson. It was the latter’s approach to intuitive process, no doubt a counter to quasi-Enlightenment precise rationalities, that, from the outset, could have supplied a vade mecum to Stieglitz’s photography[10].  This non-rational palpability, that only a transformative escape from the logos of discourse restores essential meaning, has remained vibrant and persistent in art’s transhistorical explorations, mapping a field of unanswered questions extending across a range of contemporary work. It was, for example, in 2003 that Mark Alice Durant and Jane Marsching curated The Blur of the Otherworldly (also co-editing the eponymous book5), an exhibition examining the numinous through the contemporary speculum. Surveying religious and extra-sensory imagery through postmodern, principally photographic expression, Durant and Marsching fittingly locate this overlay at the margins of perception that still stir us toward a temporal Other-time:

Henri Bergson has described an image as something that exists halfway between a representation and the thing itself. It is not just a lifeless sign, yet it is not quite life. The image lives at the threshold, standing between us and the abstractions we use to represent ourselves. The image is a window, a doorway, a passage between the flesh of our existence and the cluttered forest of signs we have invented to communicate our inchoate selves. Before photography: words, etchings, pottery shards, carvings in stone, the artifacts left by our ancestors, the concrete pieces of a puzzle with which we attempt to reconstruct their lives.[11]

Rapt between transhistorical horns and consequentially yearning for conciliatory unison, Durant’s intones an Everyman lament, a cybercultural sequel to the soul-searching of Joyce’s Ulysses/Bloom:

I desire otherworldly experiences, yet I want proof. Humans are programmed with these sometimes-contradictory impulses. By definition, having proof means that otherworldly experiences are brought into the concrete world of clarity and legibility. But when this happens they are in danger of losing their mystery and power to make us wonder. Much of human culture is a result of this ongoing struggle between our empirical demands and the need for an open-ended universe. We want our unshakable certainty and yet we hunger to be haunted.[12]

The contentions bound to this antagonism are not exclusively epistemological; they extend into ethico-cultural territory, as well. For within a year of Durant and Marsching’s show, another event broadened further still the degree to which transhistorical anxieties operate in the present. Concerned with the consequences that a seemingly innocuous intersection of worlds—art and religion—provoke, Alison Edwards and Lawrence Sullivan, then at Harvard’s Center for the Study of World Religions, forced a defining moment in empirical questions in the form of a book and conference, Stewards of the Sacred 21. Aiming at decisive resolution of still-remaining, ambiguous and competing notions underlying distinctions between terms like relic and artwork, Sullivan and Edwards identified a range of practices, museological, governmental, and tribal, crucial to worlds in opposition but co-present in the same space-time. Here, anthropologists, museum administrators, artists, theologians, and First Nations tribal elders voiced conflicting perspectives on the objective importance of unearthed and otherwise reclaimed objects revolving on a singular transhistorical question: which world now owns the rightful claim to the power, value, and destiny of sacred objects? Whether as components of the archaeological record or consecrated items in need of repatriation, all contention inculpates the dilemmatic role, perhaps conspiratorial, played by the museum at a time when the institution stands transhistorically across two conflicting world views, one, belonging to contemporary institutional study, and the other, anchored in primordial structures of birthright.

With art and culture, music, too, has echoed a transhistorical phenomenology unique to cyberculture. Of innumerable examples, on, from the collaborative work of Brian Eno and David Byrne has placed special attention on the process. Presented neither as social study nor as parody, the 1981 album My Life in the Bush of Ghosts carved out a novel act of re-voicing. Adopting actual recordings that depicted a range of theological experiences—homilies, religious quarrels, songs, and exorcisms—as thematic metonymy for a larger sonic canvas, the album mortised the playback of these conversions, transformations, contentions, and incantations with the minimalist pulse of postmodernity’s precursor to trance. This technological replacement of acoustic foundation is not just an incidental instance of sound collage; in the act of substitution of an original audience present at the event with another, pluralized across time, space, and culture, a transhistorical isthmus of worlds comes into view. It is a space otherwise unable to harmonise one culture whose embryonic spiritual roots deliver transcendence but sacrifice relativism, with another, innervated by continual flux but limited to material reality. As similar to the work of Marsching and Durant, the album, replete with transcendental, conceptual and aesthetic significance, functions within a rare ethos in which the modern work of art is pressed into service as landscape surveyor scanning through an expressive field of ancestral moments and energies.

Even so, this is not the only compound tension induced through technological postmodernity. There is, in addition to the transhistorical colligation of epochs, another tension that cyberculture’s overlaying multiplicities have provoked. Rather than manifesting in the temporal dimension, its encroachment marks across the spatial axis, for which reason it is transformal. By this term I mean not only the substitution of form with mode, but specifically the process by which that exchange has been realized, such that form and shape now operate more as enunciative verbs than as static substances. This alteration appears most discernibly in art practices that now transcend all singularity of medium (and thus of form), yet retain the kind of pure formalism that one might have felt irrelevant to the deconstructive character of contemporary art. The theatre on which this transformal action takes place is, as I have mentioned, that of the image, but, insubstantially present only as projection, the image now assumes the dimensionality of a material support that extends beyond the two dimensions of a projection screen. Of this fusion of image and space, which may assume the name filmic sculpture, several examples indicate the transformal case for cybercultural encoding in spatial appearance.


Figure 1. Mader, Stublic, and Wiermann, Folded Space. Media facade, dimensions variable. Torre Pompéia, Sao Paolo, Brazil. ©2008, Mader, Stublic, and Wiermann. Courtesy of the artists.

The transformal might best be understood functionally, as the stipulation of one disruptive plane onto the visual structure of another. A naïve reading might assume this notion to include the realm of virtual reality, but VR follows rather the differing aim of creating non-disruptive planarity of maximal resemblance to the objectival cohesion of the physical world. Instead, the divergent stratification of space, implying among other phenomena, that of depth, which is to say more space, whether shallow or filled, is the rhetorical force of the transformal, which in a cybercultural context points to the function of the term I have been iterating: encoding. I have in other occasions discussed one exemplar of this new duality, proposed as a media façade by the German design firm of Mader, Stublic, and Wiermann on the headquarters of Orkuveita Reykjavikur, Iceland’s principal purveyor of geothermal power, melds onto the presence of an architectural body the projection of geometrical forms tightly bound to a new axis whose centre anchors to indeterminate space, but similar structures with similar post-constructivist projections exist (figure 1). Here, emblematic of cyberculture, is the expression of transformal tension, a projective opposition between forces, one entirely physical and conveying pure convexity and; the other, purely notional and injecting into the physical a fervent concavity—with each distending toward its own direction, which is to say, its own dimension.

A similar deconstruction of planar perception is central to the work of Andrew Neumann, whose series of electronic sculptures, Industrial Wall Panels, expresses transformal conjugation on a variety of levels. The material choice of these sculptures accentuates one such distinction, as the organic role of the back panel, comprised of unpainted plywood, contradicts the mechanical and optical operations of the mechanism that figures over it. In opposition, too, is the stasis of the panel against the motion inherent within the metallic machinery of self-observation in continual oscillating movement like a laden pendulum or a Duchampian rotorelief whose expressive dynamism has been translated from a circular contour to a horizontal one. The layering of planes stipulated in Neumann’s work is emphasised by the presence of one or various cameras trained on kinetic details of the work’s own rotary motion rail system, or conversely of an abstract line painted directly onto the sculpture, a recursive act that fills the distance between conceptual forms with a new reading of the work, a reading rendered by the work onto itself. These elements orchestrate simultaneously in Phase Cancellation with Sine Wave (figure 2), in which each half of a double rail structure, stacked and harmonising like the staves of a piano score, sets into motion an electronic component. The bottom module, exposing its circuitry so cryptically as to render it unrecognisable, is a camera assembly whose focal interest is a horizontal sine wave painted onto the panel beneath the rail. The top element in this duo, accommodating a compact LCD monitor whose image is the signal of the sine wave captured by the camera, moves across the panel to the rotation of its own helical screw rail. Each element, camera and monitor, paces horizontally across the surface of the panel in entirely independent rhythm, so that the reality of the painted sine wave becomes relativized and deconstructed in an act of scanning that is itself explicitly decomposed into an endless continuity of states combining viewing in one direction with presenting in another. Neumann’s work typifies how the transformal encoding of perception through planar differences destroys the transparency of mechanism and medium, replacing the intuitive assumptions of integration with relentless conspicuousness on implicit processes themselves.

Figure 2. Andrew Neumann, Phase Cancellation with Sine Wave. Plywood, LCD screen, camera, motors, electronics, 32” x 18” x 7”. 2002. Private collection. Courtesy of the artist.

Figure 2. Andrew Neumann, Phase Cancellation with Sine Wave. Plywood, LCD screen, camera, motors, electronics, 32” x 18” x 7”. 2002. Private collection. Courtesy of the artist.

In light of the numerous reciprocities that I have documented here, it is retrospectively arguable that the scope of possibility implied in Stieglitz’s letter to Duchamp turns on the acknowledgment of mechanical process as a new aesthetic and embryonically cybercultural code rather than as embedded groundwork for something else. This shift toward process is why the same question could have been asked by Duchamp of Stieglitz. Duchamp’s departure from conventional art practice, a moment seen as germinating in a diary entry containing the self-rebuking imperative to stop painting and get a job, is in many ways a permanent foray into the embrace of technical materials not only for expressive critique, but for a kind of engineering, which is to say the capture of functionality, that artistic practice had always ignored. The near-filmic motion that Duchamp’s early painting had striven to capture through Nude Descending a Staircase, through the fictive documentation of gear machinery in The Large Glass, and through the interrogative paradox on motion of Bicycle Wheel, will all later amplify in his electrically powered rotorelief work, itself a mechanical kineticisation, a multi-angle take on expressive perspective, a major disavowal of painting’s flatness, and collude to frame new conditions of art through an embrace of the artful media, which is to say conceptual engineering. This line of effort reveals how genuinely and repeatedly Duchamp’s empirical curiosities reached into the heart of Stieglitz’s own territory. For it was Stieglitz who had studied mechanical engineering in Berlin forty years earlier, and it was he again who had developed unusual expertise in photochemistry and who harvested a collection of cameras large and small with which to experimentalise the photograph. It was Stieglitz, the epitome of the artist artisan, who explored new media and confronted aesthetic and technical matter with equal skill. And, likewise, a visionary attention to multiple perspective was also valuable to Stieglitz, manifesting most momentously in vigorous and clairvoyant sponsorship of the young Picasso, for whom he organized the first solo exhibition, in 291, the legendary “Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession” which Stieglitz and Edward Steichen opened in 1911. With such foresight and foundations, one can view this perplexing question of whither photography as art as a probe to Duchamp’s logic rather than as a factual quest for authenticity that Stieglitz would in any case have by then long resolved. And the probe proves fruitful, for Duchamp’s answer falls neither in the class of affirmation nor of denial but, looking to the role of artistic production within the continuity of historical process, presages what has become increasingly consequential to art’s encirclements around medium and materiality, namely that culture’s technological and industrial affordances now provide the bulk of what defines the principal experiences, events, and objects through which both contemporary art and the culture industry articulate.

These encirclements, measurable in art’s evolution through accelerating engagements with new technology and materials, are not isolated cases; they are overlooked or relegated as secondary to art’s genuine modernist concerns. But as an abundance of examples of what must now be called cybercultural art, they appear in several moments and places, in the geometric symmetries in the latticed sculptured of Naum Gabo and Antoine Pevsner, Francisco Sobrino, and François Morellet, the magnetic sculpture of Len Lye and Takis, the kinetic sculpture of George Rickey, the material deconstructions of Jean Tinguely, the light dynamos of Heinz Mack, recombinant revolutions of Nicolas Schöffer’s rotating objects and in the utter industrial depersonalisation of the Minimalist aesthetic. The material structure of these works expands and saturates expressive space to the point where critique folds within the fabric of work, for it is through technological proficiency that this kind of art is realized, and only through such technology that its significance would be decoded. To appraise the full extent to which such art functions as critique requires that critique itself migrate from a system built up of rational formalism and categorical abstraction toward the technological frame from which new media work is constructed and through which it codifies itself. To ask, from such a cybercultural frame, what sense it makes to view new media art through notions of flatness, to recall Greenberg’s modernist norms for painting, is to prompt a backward glance all the way to photography itself, and the critical difficulties that it imposed on art’s received aesthetic paradigms. For, even with its glaring representational characteristics, photography already embedded in itself a critique of culture mediated through a mechanism of production and reproduction that was no longer predominantly manual. And the perception of that distance, which locates the act of creation as something far removed from the immediate hand, was the major crisis for art and for culture, a point of simultaneous material, economic, and political transition at the turn of the last century.

Cultural production, no longer an immediate craft, becomes mechanized and industrialized into a new phenomenon that compels broad deciphering of social and technical codes. In this dual cipher, with production newly accompanied by and gradually supplanted by reproduction is the semantic etymology of cyberculture, the historical moment in which a conglomeration of signs produced both by humans and technology defines a turbulent sea on whose waves of innovation everything new instantly, virally, reproduced is continually rendered obsolete by further novelty, improvement, or replacement. Drawing closer to perception, this restless cultural language, manifest in the neologistic adoption, substitution, and convergence of art, system, craft, and language, is a sign of cyberculture’s perpetual “until something else”.


Debord, G., The Society of the Spectacle, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith, Zone Books, Cambridge, Mass., 1967/1995.

Durant, M. A., ‘The Blur of the Otherworldly’, Art Journal, 62/3,Fall 2003, 6-15.

Durant, M. A. and Marsching, J. D. (eds.), Blur of the Otherworldly: Contemporary Art, Technology, and the Paranormal Baltimore: Center for Art and Visual Culture, UMBC, 2006.

Fawcett, E. D., ‘Matter and Memory’, Mind, 21/ 82,April 1912, 201-32.

Greenberg, C., Art and Culture: Critical Essays, Beacon Press, Boston, 1965.

Jones, C. A., Eyesight Alone: Clement Greenberg’s Modernism and the Bureaucratization of the Senses, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2005.

Latour, B., We Have Never Been Modern, trans. Catherine Porter, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1993.

Naumann, F., M. and Obalk, H. (eds.), Affectt Marcel: The Selected Correspondence of Marcel Duchamp, trans. Jill Taylor London: Thames & Hudson, 2000.

Schjeldahl, P., The Hydrogen Jukebox: Selected Writings of Peter Schjeldahl, 1978-1990, (Lannan Series of Contemporary Art Criticism, No 2, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1991.

Sullivan, L. and Edwards, A. (eds.), Stewards of The Sacred Cambridge, MA: American Association of Museums with the Center for Study of World Religions, Harvard University, 2004.


[1] This introduction is based on one in a previous book that I edited, Cyberculture and New Media (Rodopi, 2009).

[2] Naumann, F., M. and Obalk, H. (eds.), Affectt Marcel: The Selected Correspondence of Marcel Duchamp, trans. Jill Taylor London: Thames & Hudson, 2000. The typographic configuration shown is Duchamp’s.

[3] Schjeldahl, P., The Hydrogen Jukebox: Selected Writings of Peter Schjeldahl, 1978-1990, (Lannan Series of Contemporary Art Criticism, No 2, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1991. p. 187.

[4] See Jones, C. A., Eyesight Alone: Clement Greenberg’s Modernism and the Bureaucratization of the Senses, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2005. Jones documents this reduction, and through the question, “What was it that Greenberg took to be modern, such that an artist could emerge as either premature or ‘pseudo’ in relation to it?” (p.150) reasons its roots to be centered in a formalism of abstraction, one in which the body does not figure (as it were) and which conversely resonates with technology. Her further assertion that abstraction “also took from perception to purify” implicates Greenberg’s characterisation of modernism in Bruno Latour’s similar critique of modernity as largely manifesting through a practice of purification, of separation of “native” from “modern” sensibility, of pure from impure, whose culminating process is the scientific method, a methodological holy grail of sorts for Greenberg (See Latour, B., We Have Never Been Modern, trans. Catherine Porter, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1993.) .

[5] Greenberg, C., Art and Culture: Critical Essays, Beacon Press, Boston, 1965.

[6] This hybridism is for Latour, modernity’s second practice, a complement to that of purification.

[7] Greenberg, Art and Culture: Critical Essays,

[8] It is the relevance of this organicity to modernism that Greenberg dismisses. While Picasso and Matisse had broken with nature, the work of Stieglitz, Georgia O’Keeffe, Arthur Dove, and Kandinsky, rife with “mystical overtones”, was for Greenberg a “repudiation of technics and rationalism”, a metaphysical “messianism” that Caroline Jones connects to multiplicity of charges: of Greenberg’s view of Stieglitz as an intellectually puerile dandy; to Greenberg’s view of O’Keeffe as “pseudo-modern”; and to Greenberg’s inability to free the photograph from its indexicality (Cf. Jones, pp.145-175). As my later treatment of art and metaphysics reveals, these biases leave Greenberg outside the portals of cyberculture, with its propensity for assimilation through layered recoding of historical culture’s many previously unconnected manifestations.

[9] “Once society has lost its myth-based community, it loses all the reference points of truly common language until such time as the divisions within the inactive community can be overcome by the inauguration of a real historical community. When art, which was the common language of social inaction, develops into independent art in the modern sense, emerging from its original religious universe and becoming individual production of separate works, it too becomes subject to the movement governing the history of all separate culture. Its declaration of independence is the beginning of its end”. Debord, G., The Society of the Spectacle, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith, Zone Books, Cambridge, Mass., 1967/1995.§ 186.

[10] Nor is this merely postmodern hindsight. Documenting Bergson’s rejection of the conceptual method in favour of the flux-like immediacy of experience, a 1912 review of the first English translation of Time and Free Will, makes clear that the basis for just such an essentialist reading of Stieglitz was available in his own day. Bergson’s “sympathetic insight” as fuel for the intuitive grasp crucial to a Stieglitz photograph is contrasted with the kind of formal/categorical reasoning that disrupts the captured phenomenon so that “to get at reality in its living movement we must break out of the prison of concepts and immerse ourselves, as best we may, in the flux”. Fawcett, E. D., ‘Matter and Memory’, Mind, 21/ 82,April 1912, 201-32.

[11] Durant, M. A., ‘The Blur of the Otherworldly’, Art Journal, 62/3,Fall 2003, 6-15.

[12] Ibid.