Ten Key Texts on Digital Art: 1970-2000
by Lev Manovich
Working on my assignment to select written works considered important to the history of digital art, culture, and technology turned out to be quite difficult. In contrast to other art fields, the memory of the digital art field is very short, while its long-term memory is practically absent. As a result, many artists working with computers, as well as curators and critics who exhibit and write about these artists, keep reinventing the wheel over and over again. While other fields usually have certain critical and theoretical texts which are widely known and which usually act as starting points for new arguments and debates, the digital art field cannot compare. No critical text on digital art has achieved a familiarity status that can be compared with the status of classic articles by Clement Greenberg and Rosalind Krauss (on modern art), or Andre Bazin and Laura Mulvey (on film). So what does it mean to select written works considered important to the history of digital art? The field did produce many substantial texts that were important at particular historical points, but since these texts are not remembered, they have no bearing on current developments.
If you think that I am overstating my point, consider the following example: Think of important museum shows and their catalogs, which act as key reference points in the field of modern art. How many visitors to Bitstreams (the Whitney Museum, 2001) and 010101: Art in Technological Times (SFMOMA, 2001) knew that thirty years ago the major art museums in New York and London presented a whole stream of shows on the topics of art and technology? Together, these shows were more radical and conceptually interesting in terms of new media than current attempts. The following are some of these shows: Cybernetic Serendipity (ICA, curated by Jasia Reichardt, 1968); The Machine as Seen at the End of the Mechanical Age (MOMA, curated by K.G. Pontus Hulten, 1968); Software, Information Technology: Its Meaning for Art (Jewish Museum, New York, curated by Jack Burnham, 1970); Information (MOMA, curated by Kynaston McShine, 1970); and Art and Technology (LACMA, curated by Maurice Tuchman, 1970).
While a number of online exhibitions were organized by Steve Dietz at the Walker, recent exhibitions at the Z Lounge at the New Museum in New York City (curated by Anne Barlow and Anne Ellegood), the shows and events curated by Christiane Paul at the Whitney, and Jon Ippolito's curatorial work at the Guggenheim, are all sophisticated. They are also small-scale affairs. In terms of recent large-scale museum surveys, only the exhibition at SFMOMA (2001) can be compared to those of thirty years ago. It was an ambitious attempt to sample the whole landscape of contemporary culture in order to present how artists and designers across a number of disciplines engage with computing on a variety of levels: as a tool, as a medium, as iconography, and as a source of new perceptual, cognitive and communication skills and habits. In comparison, the show at the Whitney was a truly reactionary affair. Here was a show on new media art that did not include any computers or interactive works. Instead, new media was reduced to flat images on the walls: stills presented as digital prints, or moving images presented with projectors or plasma screens. The descriptions of the works were positioned within the familiar and well-rehearsed narratives and categories of standard 20th century art textbooks. In short, new media was neutralized, diluted, and rendered harmless, similar to the way commercial culture now takes over most of the new radical cultural developments, from hip-hop to techno.
In contrast, just reading the titles of the exhibitions that took place thirty years ago you can see that they experimented with new categories and dimensions of the emerging techno-culture. In terms of the works and projects presented, the museums similarly were not afraid to invite new technologies and new types of artistic practices within their spaces . For example, The Machine as Seen at the End of the Mechanical Age presented works by 100 artists, including commissioned collaborations between artists and engineers under the umbrella of EAT. (Compare this to the current practice of United States art museums to commission "Net art," which then can be safely "tucked away" on museum Web sites instead of in the actual galleries.) The Software exhibition included a number of works which used a PDP-8 computer in the museum. Meanwhile, the content of the exhibition reflected the information and communication revolution on a conceptual level by presenting a number of projects which asked viewers to participate in particular communication scenarios constructed by artists Vito Acconci and Hans Haacke.
Given the systematic absence of long-term memory in the digital art field, just ten texts would not be enough to reconstruct its rich fifty-year history. Here is the selection algorithm I ended up following:
(1) Given my limit of ten texts, I decided to be a little subjective and give weight to texts that were particularly important to me when I first learned about digital art.
(2) Given that the digital art field does not really have a set of canonical critical texts, I instead selected a few texts which acted as key reviews of the field during different decades (The Computer in Art, 1971; Expanded Cinema, 1970; Digital Visions, 1987).
(3) Since the annual festivals and exhibitions such as Ars Electronica, ISEA, and SIGGRAPH played a key role in development of the field, I included a couple of representative catalogs from the particularly important meetings (ISEA 1994, Ars Electronica 1995).
(4) I then added the first publication from the ZKM Center for Art and New Media's Artintact series (artintact 1, 1994). Early on, ZKM solved the two key problems of the digital art field, distribution and criticism, in a particularly elegant and efficient way. Every year since 1994 ZKM published a CD-ROM/book. The CD-ROM would contain three interactive art projects while the book would present critical texts about each of the projects (today ZKM continues this successful format with a new series which uses DVD-ROM instead of CD-ROM). By following the book format and teaming up with a major German book publisher, ZKM assured that Artitact would be distributed through the standard book distribution channels. (It only took the Whitney eight years to catch up: the Whitney 2002 Biennial catalog similarly included a CD-ROM attached to the front cover ).
(5) While digital art does not have a canon of critical texts about the art itself, most artists and curators in the field are familiar with at least some theoretical texts dealing with the larger topics of digital technology, culture, and society. In fact, I think that a number of such theoretical texts are equivalent to canonical critical texts in other art fields. Since I was limited to a total of ten texts, I could only include a small sample of such theoretical works. I chose Discourse Networks by Friedrich Kittler (1985, English edition 1990); Cyberspace: First Steps, edited by Michael Benedikt (1991), DJ Culture by Ulf Poschardt (1995, English edition 1998); and Cybertext by Espen Aarseth (1997). But I could have also selected books by Katherine Hayles, Sherry Turkle, W.J.T. Mitchell, Paul Virilio, Peter Lunenfeld, Jay David Bolter, Pierre Levy, Geert Lovink, Norman Klein, Vivian Sobchack, Peter Weibel, Slavoj Zizek, Erkki Huhtamo, Margaret Morse, Alex Galloway, Matt Fuller, and many others (and these are just the people who write or are available in English translation; internationally, the list of brilliant commentators on techno-culture goes on and on) .
I think that each of the four theoretical books I selected has something unique about it. Benedikt's best-selling collection is exemplary in bringing together theorists, artists and computer designers, or early cyberspaces such as Habitat, and somehow forces the designers to write clear and theoretically sophisticated descriptions of their projects and research programs. The best of the anthologies and conferences on digital arts and new media culture try to create such a mix, but few succeed in doing it the way Cyberspace: First Steps did.
Kittler is probably the most important media theorist after McLuhan, and in his master opus Discourse Networks he was able to accomplish another difficult convergence trick: bringing together the best of what the United States called "critical theory" (in his case it is Lacan and Foucault) with his own brilliant ideas about the effects of communication networks and media recording/storage/access technologies on culture. Again, this is a kind of convergence that many attempt, but probably only Kittler has succeeded so far.
Many would agree that the two areas of culture where the new logic of digital computing always shows up significantly earlier than in other fields are computer games and electronic music. While I know next to nothing about popular electronic music, I found DJ Culture to be a brilliant mix of broad social, cultural, and technological history and a provocative theoretical speculation. Many books and anthologies on electronic music put you to sleep with too much detail about this or that piece of technology, but DJ Culture manages to stay focused on the concepts. In his writing, Munich-based Ulf Poschardt also successfully integrates a "remix"-inspired style of exposition with a more standard historical structure that keeps you on track through this "think" book.
Finally, in his thin but dense Cybertext, Espen Aarseth offers a particularly elegant solution to the key question of digital arts and culture: how to separate new and old media. Although he is concerned with texts, his approach can be extended to other media, providing a fresh paradigm for thinking about the relationships between the old and new media. Read this book if you missed it! (I don't want to do his complex and clear arguments injustice by trying to summarize them in two sentences here.)
In the end, it is probably for the best that the arguments in digital arts do not always return to the same few "master" texts over and over again, the way it often happens in the art world and in the humanities. As Norman Klein once put it, "to paint with a computer is to paint with a machine gun," meaning that a digital computer is unprecedented in being the key engine of modern economy, the key control and communication technology of modern societies, and also the key representational machine. Given this unprecedented convergence, any serious reflection on the social and cultural dynamics of our time has to engage with digital computing.
The fact that the theoretical texts which address the general issues in techno-culture Ša new functioning of space and time, info-subjectivity, new dynamics of cultural production and consumption, and so onŠare more important to digital artists and designers than digital art criticism per se is ultimately very healthy. It means that the people in our field have a keen interest in how computerization affects society and culture at large rather than just being concerned about the narrow history of their own field. So while we should all be more familiar with this history than we currently are, we should not turn it into a fetish.
1. For more information on these shows and other important milestones in the fifty-year history of computer and telecommunication art, see the excellent Telematic Timeline produced as a part of the show curated by Steve Dietz (http://telematic.walkerart.org/timeline/).
2. In 2002, Hatje Cantz Publishers published The Complete Artintact 1994-99 CD-ROMagazine on DVD-ROM.
3. I decided not to include in my final "Top 10" list any works by my Southern California colleagues: Hayles, Lunenfeld, Klein, and Sobchack. Why am I being so näive? New Yorkers curate and publish themselves all the time.