Culture, Technology and Creativity
by Simon Biggs, April 1991

Originally delivered as a lecture at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, 1991

The computer is becoming invisible, and simultaneously everywhere. Already washing machines, micro-wave ovens, cars and televisions have been computerised. This is the beginning of the invisible computer, which will result in virtually every electronic device known, or to be invented, being similarly computerised.

Parrallel to this development is that of networking, which could conceivably result in all the invisible computers in the world being networked into a single virtual computer. This would lead to the evolution of a computer that would be everywhere and nowhere at the same time.

Technologia: Systematic Treatment; a discourse on art, science and industry.

This connotes a fundamentally progressive ethic, and is as such the mainspring of Modernism.

Technology both enables and disables.

Technology itself and on its own is not a cultural determinant. Technology is the invention of a particular culture - a cultural expression. The relationship between culture and technology is not linear and mono-directional, but multi-dimensional and hyper-spatial.

Naum Gabo

Art and science are two different streams which flow from the same creative force and flow into the same ocean of common culture, but the currents of these two streams flow in different directions.

Art and science meet with technology. This is the initial interface - although each discipline may rise from the same source.

As Gabo has pointed out above, the artist and the scientist are looking in different directions for different things, although their original impetous for looking may be the same and often what they find are analogous to one another. However, this is not to say that art and science need be governed by or expressive of particular paradigmatic developments. Their histories may be parrallel, but not necessarily the same.

The tragedy of technology. The conflict between reason and humanism.

But is not reason something we hold as central to human values and Humanist thought, and have not human values been extrapolated and justified through reason? Rationalism and Humanism are a dialectic, not an opposition. This dialectic can be extended to contain or be parrallel to that of human liberation vs. human domination. This is the tragedy - not technology! Technology, as a primary function and expression of both reason and human values exists at a nexus where freedom and discipline - the twin dynamics of power - are situated.

Technology is as much the product of Humanism as Rationalism.

Technological Utopia is one where technology and culture, in all their differences, are reconciled. Such a Utopia has never developed. It is not new to question the role of technology in culture, or as culture. From the reaction of the Luddites to the investigations of Walter Benjamin through to the critiques of Paul Virilio discourses other than that of Utopian Modernism have functioned not on the margins but at the centre of cultural debate.

Science has had to continually redefine its conception of the world. So has art. It is in their nature as diciplines to abstract the world - to create or recreate it as a simulation composed as a symbolic grammar. It is through this process of abstraction that the required distancing and alienation to the world can be established such that the individual and society can conceive of, adapt to and shape a changing set of world views and paradigms. Both art and science are concerned primarily with this process of artifice - and only secondarily with the artifact (invention, technology or the art object). However, the artifact, although not primary, is the fundamental referent to the practice of artifice - of art, science and knowledge.

It is important to remember that the value we attach to art - what Walter Benjamin called its "aura" - is secondary. This aura is not the objective of art and creative practise (or if it is, then of a shallow and precious art) but is the product of the artifact as it is culturally interpreted and constituted. This aura can be attached to any object, whether of artistic origin or not (for example, the value attached to the prehistoric or old functional object). The art object is an artifact, removed one step from the artistic act itself, existing within a certain cultural millieu which participates in its manifestation and constitution, both in terms of how that object is interpreted and in the visible and invisible cultural persuaders that act upon the artist.

On this ground Jack Burnham's idea that in the 20th C. the "objet d'art" has evolved into the "systeme d'art" is misplaced. Art has always been an act, a dynamic. It has never been in the object itself, except as a trace: a record of that art. In this sense technology - as artifact - is the same, holding within it the traces of the science or creativity from whence it arose. When the object replaces the action as primary to art, then art becomes simply a craft. When technology replaces science we see a similar process occurring, with science becoming engineering.

In our culture it is still justifiable to evaluate art in terms of the objects that represent it, rather than in terms of the practise itself. The object, as part of a larger system of signs and in its internal signifying structure, is the grammatical unit, the means, for the artists communicative act. The abstractive processes of creativity, although primary, depend upon the actuality of the secondary object (whether real or imaginary) for their constitution and expression. The art object is the interface between individuals, between the inner and the outer. It is the bridge in the translative and expressive process. The artist fulfills the creative role designated by society through satisfying this cultural need for evidence and experience. Without a craft, a technologia, the artist is an artist in name only - they fail to satisfy their social role, and thus do not function as Artist.

New technological art is criticised for the apparent lack of the authors signature in the work, as the relationship between author and artifact is mediated by the machine. Such criticism reflects a naive perception of what constitutes an authors signature. We have no problem in reading that signature in a typeset novel, and it would be incredible to think that a novel would be more meaningful if published in long hand. The authors signature is not a product of their hand. Such a concept relies upon the primacy of the artists expressivity being founded in their physicality - an extension of the "stupid as a painter" syndrome.

It should be noted that there are established artistic traditions with reproduction technologies. Here one could include those media centred on the camera, such as photography, cinema and video. The artists signature is retained in these media. A Bergman is immediately identifiable as such. Certainly, the camera's trace is always evident in the work, but this is a trace with which the authors trace is involved in a discourse - a discourse which results in the authors signature being inscribed at the centre of the artifact.

I agree that art as we have known it since the rise of the bourgoisie is dead, and now belongs in the museum, along with the class that once promoted a particular form for arts social role. However, art is not dead! It has been, or is in the process of, evolving. Looking back over historical models of what it has been may be useful in ascertaining what art will become, but may also serve to cloud the issues. My own feeling is that the social role of the artist will be different, but that the ontology of Artist will remain the same.

It is a mistake to regard the appropriation of art by capital as no different to its appropriation by the bourgoisie. Certainly, the dynamic is the same, but the result is different. We need to analyse the differences between bourgoise and capitalist culture (along with other forms of the cultural constitution of power; eg - the Church) to understand the relative value of arts social role.

These questions regarding the role of art, the cultural dynamics that it participates in or is appropriated by, are evoked explicitly when the artist utilises new technologies. In our current culture, and since the industrial revolution, technology has represented and been the means of a particular social paradigm, centred on questions of power, communication, processes of production and the constitution of identity. Technology, like art, is an expression of humanities hopes and tragedies, fears and desires. The artists intelligent and sensitive application or appropriation of technology can revitalise our perspectives on these questions. Nevertheless, this is a problematic strategy.

It is no longer viable to critique the artists use of technology in terms of the position it places them in, in relation to military and industrial interests. If using new technology does bring them into contact with this world, then it offers potential for the artist - as critic and visionary. It should also be noted that the primary driving force behind technological development is no longer the military, but the requirement of capital for the excitement and satisfaction of the corporate and individual consumer. This is a territory with which the artist should be familiar.

The interpenetration of scientific (military) and commercial techniques and ideas around technology sees culture coming to terms with exotic technologies. The primary dynamic in this process was the shift in post-war power from the militarised West to the de-militarised East, and the requirement of expanding capital to find new consumer markets. Although the micro-computer was developed in the USA it was applied more successfully in home computers made in Japan. Now, fifteen years after the advent of the micro-computer, the next (fifth) generation of computers is being developed not in the USA for the military but in Japan for the domestic consumer.

Can the artist sustain an oppositional practise whilst using new technology? Can they maintain this position, even if they do not use new technology? What is the value of the artists traditional oppositional role?

Given the shift away from military-industrial to capital-consumer led technological change then that which the artist is in opposition to has also changed. Power today does not originate from some panoptic military-industrial centre, but from a fragmented network of hotpoints that are the producers and consumers of technological culture. Baudrillard's concept of an imploding system is a less accurate metaphor than that of the exploding, although he is correct in speaking of the dissapearance of the real and meaning, as hyperconformity (a conformity of difference) comes to dominate.

Therefore, there does appear to be a requirement for the oppositional role of the artist, where the primary attributes of that position are those central to the ontology of the artist. Attributes such as their individualistic vision, personal authorial voice and the intimate contract that must be entered into during the process of communication. The new technologies at the centre of hyperconformity are also the most suitable tools for the artist to establish these principles.

After thirty years of activity computer graphics appears to still be in its infancy as an artistic medium. Researchers and producers continue to employ naive and simplistic concepts regarding image making and the constitution of meaning. As yet, only a small number of artists and researchers have made work that challenges this state of affairs.

The artists rationale for utilising new techologies will depend upon how it suits their purposes. The most profound purpose they can have in this regard is the questioning and analyis of how technology operates in the constitution and expression of culture.

One of the most exciting aspects of using new technologies is that they may assist in the development of new ways of seeing and understanding. As yet, there are few rules governing how the artist should use such media, or what they can do with it. It allows a sense of freedom, when compared to traditional media.

One example of how new technology may assist in developing new paradigms is in the question of space. The medieval, rennaisance and modern concepts of space were all distinct, and artists and thinkers responded to these developments by establishing relevant representational and conceptual models. To quite an extent it is possible to trace the societies conceptual currents and ability to assimilate new ideas through an historical study of spatial representational systems.

Now we enter the age of hyper-space - a space that is personalised to the individuals presence within it. A space which every individual will shape to their own requirements and desires. What will be the representations of this new model?

The only factor that can really function to erase the signature is the lack of an author. There are numerous artifacts in the world that lack signature, simply as they lacked a strong author investing them with their presence.

Most debate on new media has focused on lens based or screen based work. This points to an obsession with the image and a misunderstanding of what the computer is.

The computer is not an especially visual machine. It has no special facility for imaging above that of other representational strategies. In a sense the computer is not a machine at all. It is a meta-machine. A control system for other machines. The computer can be employed with any machine or media, altering the manner in which it is organised and controlled. To restrict our analysis of the impact of the computer on representation to the strictly visual we not only narrow our conception of what the computer is and what it may mean, but also impoverish the diversity of representational strategies. It is better to look to how the computer may explode the nature of representation, rather than attempt to fix it within one particular approach to the subject.

From an artistic point of view, there is nothing especially new about Virtual Reality. This medium should naturally come to be used by artists, as no great paradigm shift is involved. The potential of Virtual Reality, for artists, is not primarily in the new visualistation and experiential possibilities it offers but in the opportunity that such a medium offers for them to occupy a discourse at the centre of mainstream culture.

A number of commentators have noted that the potential impact on society of Virtual Reality will greatly exceed that of television. If this is so, and if artists do choose to use this medium, then it is possible that their social role will change just as radically, as they utilise and are identified with what is in social terms a radically new medium.

One application of new technology often championed is the idea of networked hyper-media (or pool-processing). Essentially, this involves using interactive and non-linear media so as to allow the author and reader equal positions in the processes of reading and writing, thus diminishing their role differences.

Whilst there is no doubt as to the fact that these technologies allow this to occur, and that there is much of value to be found in this developing practise questions remain as to whether this will become a popular way of producing and consuming cultural product.

The readers psychological requirement for the author, and vice versa, would seem to suggest that the more traditional roles that they each inhabit are assured of some form of longevity - although in just what form is another question.

As has been shown, new technologies do not spell the end of traditional technologies. The synthesiser has not replaced the piano. Each has their traditional and contemporary roles to fulfill. However, the advent of the synthesiser has effected the way in which we see and use the piano. It is something different to what it was.

To identify our faults and strengths we should look to ourselves and not our machines, although they may reflect us quite accurately.

Margaret Boden's "Lovelace Questions".

Can computers help us understand creativity?
Can computers appear to be creative?
Can computers recognise creativity?
Can computers create?
On the first question YES, although I do not answer in the affirmative for the same reasons as Margaret Boden and with a very different understanding of the implications. On the other questions I answer NO.

Computers help us understand creativity - and all things human - because as human artifacts they contain and reflect the image of their creators. All artifacts have this property. What is interesting about the computer is its level of complexity and the psycho-social investment that has been made in its existence.

The possibility that an electric toaster may be able to appear creative, recognise creativity or be creative is as likely as the idea that a computer may be able to. Whilst there is a difference between computers and toasters in terms of their internal complexity and their social role, they do belong to the same class of things - and it is important to remember that.

The computer is a modelling machine, a language machine, and in this sense and by a stretch of the imagination it is possible to conceive of a machine that in principle could model the human in sufficient detail to replicate the processes of creativity - if we accept a questionable concept of creativity founded on a linguistically heuristic system. Rather, it might be that the real value of the computer is not as a modelling machine, but as a metaphorical machine.

We have conspired to a situation where a particular technology is asked to function as a mirror to ourselves. The role of our artifacts can be seen as primarily reflective, their purpose to anthropomorphise the world. There is nothing new in this. Think back on the metaphorical applications of other technologies in this desire for an anthropomorphic universe.

What the computer primarily tells us of ourselves is that we desire to see ourselves reflected in our artifacts, and via them, see ourselves mirrored in the universe around us. It is part of a process of anthropomorphising the world which has fuelled previous belief systems, such as religion. On these grounds we should be very careful as to what we claim for our inventions and the methodologies that gave life to them.

What is creativity, and is it something that can be quantified; rendered in a procedural form suitable for the computer? Is it something that can be reduced to a mechanism?

This depends upon ones concept of creativity. My understanding of creativity is as something that is of neither the sublime or the mechanistic. It can be traced back to the act of mark making (that is, the metaphorical mark) which would appear to be founded on the idea of the individual (perhaps in a socially assigned role, and therefore on behalf of society) declaring something to be theirs, to be of them or to be attached to them. It is the expression of the human need to either contain the world within them or render it in their image. As such, it is an act of survival for the individual or the society they represent, an affirmation of life!

The question therefore is whether the need to survive and thus affirm life can be mechanised; described procedurally? Can an abstraction, something that is not alive, appreciate and found itself upon such a principle? In short, can something that is not alive desire to be alive? This question would seem to answer itself.

Nevertheless, such philosophical problems are fascinating to the artist, as it requires that basic questions revolving around ontology, desire, creativity and life itself be addressed. Again, this is not new. Some of humanities oldest myths, such as the figure of the Jewish Golem, deal with this subject matter, and have re-emerged at various points in time (for instance, Goethe's "Sorcerer's Apprentice" or Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein"). The idea of the Golem, a man of clay brought to life by a sorcerer, can be traced back to the creation of Adam in the Old Testament, and even the notion of a god invites such an analysis.