Sense, Memory and Media


At a time when art made with digital media is everywhere, the discourse for describing its qualities has yet to be firmly established. The evolution and history of new media art has recently been well grounded, but further description of the moment of creation and reception of its effect and a conceptual framework defining the distinct qualities of that effect are necessary to advances in digital artís critical analysis.

The analysis within this text hinges on the identification of three types of aesthetic experience in relation to the challenges they hold for both the artist and the viewer. These are the digital effect, the interactive and the immersive. The aesthetic sensibility of the artist and viewer is in question in the discussion of these three qualities. Aesthetic sensibility, in this context, is one's ability to perceive and interpret phenomena, and with the benefit of memory form a judgment within a given environment. The digital effect, the interactive and the immersive have a specific relation to the aesthetic sensibility of both artist and viewer. This relationship, throughout this analysis, is based upon the assumption that the media employed by the artist conveys the narrative of its structure beyond the resonance of the narrative of its content and that this structural effect must be considered by the artist. A second and important assumption here is that one would always want to be able to engage their aesthetic sensibility in relation to an artwork at the very moment of perception, not at some undetermined and unmediated time after the work is no longer being experienced.

Within a basic framework of memory, the limitations of aesthetic sensibility can be understood. Our senses take in stimuli, enter them into working memory and in the course of reflection, our long-term memory is engaged and we form a response to what we perceive. We will see that through the digital effect, the interactive and the immersive, the function of memory in the creation and reception of digital art influences the quality of intent and the quality perceived.

A work of art is defined as being digital effect if the work is merely an effect without interactive or immersive qualities. The digital effect is relevant in that the viewer’s aesthetic sensibility is not inhibited by the effect. The viewer of a work characterized as digital effect has full access to their reflective faculties and hence have full access to their aesthetic sensibility.

Interactive works made with digital media are defined by the participation of the viewer in the work’s unfolding and while engaging in varying degrees, are not fully immersive art works. The interactive can be as non-immersive as a website and as nearly immersive as an interactive installation that surrounds the viewer. In each of the varying degrees of interactivity, the viewer can be described as more or less able to engage their aesthetic sensibility.

The immersive is the most problematic scenario in this model and is understood to overwhelm the aesthetic sensibility of both the viewer of such works and the artist or designer creating within an immersive environment. That is, within immersive environments the aesthetic sensibility cannot be engaged due to the multivariate and constant stimuli entering working memory. Without the ability to reflect, the viewer’s perception is continuously structured by the totalizing environment. Memory is read-only in this case and interpretive subjectivity is not possible.

While interactivity is currently the hallmark of digital art, immersive environments will become more common forms of expression as the technology is further adopted. In fact, artists and designers are currently experimenting with creative and practical environments which are immersive. The same problems are relevant to both the artist and designer who creates within an immersive environment. That is, the interpretive interplay and contemplative adaptation inherent within typical art and design scenarios is impeded within the closed loop of the total immersive environment. The assumption is that the immersive design environment would allow for nothing other than the replication of the media structure; a re-semblance of the immersive environment.

Yet, just short of virtual reality are the augmented reality systems that are being used for military simulations and construction industry scenarios. Augmented reality systems allow the viewer or creator a kind of "straddled" immersion. Through the head mounted display, the participant sees both the simulation and the temporal world. While it is clear that immersive environments do not allow for reference to anything but their own vacuum, the notion of augmentation is resonant in its application to the digital effect, the interactive and the immersive.

Augmentation marked the beginning of many of the paradigms we experience today in new media. Nearly forty years ago, Douglas Englebart envisioned the role of computers that we take for granted today and his determination to “augment the human intellect”, resulted in the creation of such prototypes as the first networked work-stations, hypertext, the mouse and the Augmentation Research Centre. He launched a series of evolutions of “Automated External Symbol Manipulation.”

The augmentation of human intellect is in fact another way of expressing the goal of art through the stimulation of the viewer’s interpretive subjectivity. The act of interpretation while viewing art is the foundation of enlightened ethical judgment outside of aesthetics, formulated recently by Eileen Scarry in her book, "On Beauty and Being Just." Augmentation, as set out by Englebart, is cast here as the ethics of augmentation for the artist creating within highly structured media and as such is a notion of media ecology within fine art.

If the artist inherits a structured media effect and merely organizes rather than augmenting the effect, the work becomes a mere aesthetic expression; such as the arrangements made by an interior designer of furniture and fixtures designed by others. Yet, often the most poignant works within digital media are those, which within the context of their predetermined structure, present the augmentation of that structure as the framework for meaning.

This is interpreted as the aesthetic of augmentation and can be seen throughout modern and contemporary art history in varying forms and degrees. Much of the conceptual art of the seventies elaborates and extends Englebart’s notions. Within music the aesthetic of augmentation has been expressed from Schoenburg’s twelve tone system through the minimalism of Phillip Glass to Caribbean dub, and eventually the old and the new school of rap and hip hop. The web has held out as a natural home for the aesthetics of augmenation and given the slow crawl towards universal broadband, it should remain the domain of Jodi, Netochka Nezvanova, MEZ and others, where the art resides in the takeover and augmentation of your ability to use the media in a normal way.

And so, augmentation is a strategy that enables interpretation and interpretation is fundamentally an act of media ecology. The analysis of the qualities of digital art and the arrival at an ethics and aesthetics of augmentation remains however, soundly in the realm of cultural production. That is, augmentation as interpretation does not extend as a model to strategies of pedagogy. One could draw accurate parallels between this model of augmentation and the tenets of Dewey’s Constructivism but augmentation is not its justification. Nor is this notion prescriptive to the material content of artistic practice. Rather, the ethics of augmentation is a means of understanding how media ecology functions in a climate where the viewer cannot distinguish between the expressive and the canned effect. Even the digital artist who controls the language, software and hardware manifestations of their product will rarely find a viewer sophisticated enough to know that the artist structured all of the resulting effects and environments. It is practically assumed that the artist adopts and inherits structures that are created by engineers, and to their credit, engineers can certainly arrange for spectacular entertainment.

Yet, the problem facing the creation of meaning and its analysis within digital media is an understanding of how the narrative of the work is either complicit within the media’s structural priorities or the narrative is of an augmentation of the those priorities.

--Scott Weiland


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