jc01 posted 18 Jan 2004, augmented & revised 8 Feb 2004

'Interference' and 'Incompleteness' - are they important or privileged aspects of digital art's emerging rhetoric?

The way you speak of 'interference' makes me think of mediation more generally. In digital art practice there seems to be something like a pseudo-rediscovery of artistic mediation. I believe that mediation is foregrounded in digital art because both compositional and delivery media are programmable (manipulable/malleable) to an unprecedented degree. Artists can, for example, change their palette in the course of either painting or displaying works that are composed and delivered via screen-based colour. In making an image, of course, both the traditional painter and the digital artist encounter the resistance and, indeed perhaps, the interference of coloured material, but the late-comer's pixelated variables are significantly more manipulable than grains and measures of pigment.

Ironies and paradoxes flourish in the field. Artists work with media that yield. And yet, for their subjects, they take up and celebrate, as you say, "illegibility, withholding, refusal of engagement, autodestruction, discontinuity, incompleteness." Not only do media yield, they interpenetrate and refuse to occupy a particular level of hierarchical abstraction. One compelling critical/theoretical justification for the practice of textual 'codework' plays on the supposition that both written code (as in 'source code') and written (natural) language appear to share the same symbol set.* As Florian Cramer puts it "... the namespace of executable instruction code and nonexecutable code is flat." ('Digital Code and Literary Text') Far from resonating with a poetics of interference, this supposition posits a radical transparency and interplay between the symbolic structures that generate cultural objects (code, in digital art) and the symbolic structures that represent these objects (language, in the case of literary art). The fascination of this interplay and supposed transparency is evoked as an aesthetic and even a political value. Paradoxically, artists prefer to indicate this transparency in work with the contradictory qualities you have cited. On one hand, for example, Mez produces language interlaced with broken code fragments, language that is, basically, 'difficult' to read (at least in the sense that it takes time to unpack). On another (related) extreme, during a conference/festival of Digital Poetry, Cramer demonstrated a one-line code fragment (certainly poetic in the sense of condensed and elegant) - a so-called 'fork bomb' - that effectively destroys the symbolic structures of the machine that runs it. If the programmaton is a poetic generator, the 'fork bomb', for Cramer, is a poem that destroys its poet. Perhaps this is the apotheosis of an interference poetic.

However, if you come to digitally mediated literary practice as a sometime human poet, as a maker who makes a trial of language, but is not necessarily addicted to suicide or Snowcrash, then interference per se is less compelling. In common with other artists, literal practitioners are familiar with the resistance of their materials. It is true that a choice may be made either to attempt to overcome this resistance or, as it were, to succumb in the service of language. Traditionally writing has been seen in terms of 'mastery' and provides us with the cultural stereotype of (authoritative) authorship, and yet there is also a strong counter-tradition of innovation and experiment, characterized by explicit and respectful address to literal matter. The counter-tradition is not necessarily letting itself be interfered with.

Two movements, both invested in writing practice and both arising on the cusp of access to programmable and networked media seem to me to have directly engaged with the chief modes of material mediation in writing, namely: constraint, the arbitrary, and chance. The movements I have in mind are Fluxus and the OuLiPo, and it is interesting that they can be distinguished in their overall address to these modes of what you still might call 'interference.' Fluxus advocated anonymous practice, popularization, and submission to the matter and processes of art; the OuLiPo inscribed, closeted, and indulged their (gender implicated) mastery.

All of which is to say that most of the expressions of interference that you cite seem to me to be accountable for in terms of historical and continuing questions revolving around art and mediation. And some of these expressions are simply de-historicised. They have been produced without an awareness that these problems and associated practices have a history.

If I were looking for a distinct poetics of interference in new media - a poetics specific to these media - I would look in at least two places. First, to work that was explicitly engaged with specific hardware/software configurations. It has sometimes been pointed out that, because of the continual and fast-changing development of new media, there is rarely a historical moment when the artistic/aesthetic potential of a system is even close to being realised. (As opposed, for example, to the hardware/software configuration we know as 'pianoforte.') Long before any substantial content has been inscribed in some new system, that system is already outmoded, with the content it bears implicitly consigned to a state of inaccessibility. It is 'no longer supported' as the jargon goes. (In fact, it may never have been supported by either culture or commerce.) It takes an unusual and very conscious effort to reclaim media in this state, accept its historical condition and attempt to play it as an instrument. I can point to the Beige Records collaboration in reprogramming Super Mario Brothers and other computer games cassettes, along with the same collective's successful efforts to make records using the musical resources of 'early' computer sound chips. This work was, as it happens, done by artist/performers who know what it is to study and play instruments.

So perhaps here there is an emergent poetics of interference - patterns of interference caused when media evolve too quickly to be 'played' by anyone except their actual developers or by those who prefer simply to sell and exploit (new) media as such, regardless of the content these media may bear.

Apart from this, I do believe that the inevitable interference with practice caused by the limits and logistical capabilities of whatever system happens to be current plays out in a manner that is specific to digital media - although obviously related both to constraint in mediation generally, and also to the new media hyper-history I have just evoked. Programmable machines generate an expectation that everything is possible and computable, that any process can, ultimately be implemented on any and all universal machines. Limits will be overcome and logistical problems sorted by ever-increasing technological 'power.' This expectation is never satisfied and it is in the interests of system developers and manufacturers to keep it that way.

These are economic, political, and social conditions. For me they also intersect with writing practice and its aesthetic concerns at the point and at this point of time. What I mean is that: as writing reengages with the culture of human time, as writing is performed with intrinsically temporal signifiers (they move and change), then it collides with the interferences of soft and hardware specificities and with real-world computational logistics. The time it takes to compute transformations and movements cannot be bracketed. This time may not be relevant to the significance or affect of the writing being made, and this then is an interference, one that we have to confront as either contingent and temporary or inevitable. In some sense this interference of 'media that take time' must be inevitable, as it is in other artistic practice familiar to us as 'time-based.' However in writing practice, time has been artificially deferred by the traditions and institutions of print culture for long enough now that we are only beginning to understand a performance of writing that undertakes, once more, the cultivation of human time. I am not sure that this is, ultimately a matter of interference, but it is definitely something that we must learn to inscribe in our poetics.


* Note that, amongst other things, this assertion brackets the distinction between spoken and written language (with all the complex questions begged), and it is culturally specific: to my knowledge there is no programming language spelt out in the symbols of the Chinese writing system, for example. Distinctions, such as these, within human culture (between oral and literary practices, between the linguistic practices of particular human groups) are implicitly eroded. Moreover (and more pertinently for the critique of digital culture) distinctions which might allow us to recognize an emergent machinic culture are also ignored. This 'sharing of the symbol set' and 'flatness of the namespace' is evoked in a relatively simplistic way and, ironically, from a human perspective. As a human I can, for example, read 'mezangelle' and interpret its phrases, including the various imploded fragments of software jargon and once-operative code. But an actual interpreter or compiler would not be able to manage such all-too-human parsing and paraphrase. It would choke on language that ignored its culture, a culture, perhaps, of compilation or symbolic object-building rather than of interpretation or meaning creation.