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Kristoffer Gansing: Art is an early warning system

Kristoffer Gansing: Art is an early warning system
Foto: © Julian Paul

The Internet of the 1990s raised the question of who has access to the media world. Today we like to think that we all have unlimited access, and yet in fact this is precisely the question being put to the test again. Art can teach us a lot about this, especially in times of digitalisation.


BY  KRISTOFFER GANSING (artistic director of transmediale festival for art and digital culture, Berlin)


In the early 1960s, as the Internet was brand­new, media theorist Marshall McLuhan had an important idea. McLu­han, a Canadian professor of literature, widely known as the “world’s first media theorist”, introduced the term “Global Vil­lage”, a term, which is used today synonymously for the In­ternet. That was completely original given that the Internet didn’t yet exist. McLuhan used the term “Global Village” to describe the socio­cultural impact of new electronic commu­nication technologies. He not only described how new tech­nologies were changing entire fields of production, but also how media were reconfiguring human knowledge and the perception of the world. Art had a special role in such trans­formations, which for McLuhan can act as “a distant early warning system that can always be relied on to tell the old culture what is beginning to happen to it”. Today, some six­ty years after McLuhan formulated these reflections on the relations between art, technology and society, we can look back at a long history of artists engaging and experimenting with new media. To a great extent, this does concern digi­tal technologies and the Internet, both of which have been the objects of artistic activity more or less since their begin­nings. Today, digital transformation is booming and also seen as a socio­cultural process. In this context, one has to raise the question how does this effect the work of artists, what has changed?

For more than 20 years, I’ve been concerned with art and digital culture. The contemporary paradigm of “digitalisa­tion” is however a rather recent phenomenon, which in Ger­many is also called “Industry 4.0”, and is supposed to inno­vate everything from automobile production to the service economy. By contrast, in the fields of art and culture, digi­talisation mainly seems to mean bringing existing cultural and artistic content to digital platforms as well as providing new connections between audiences, institutions and pro­ducers / makers. The time of great innovations seems to be gone, when the Internet was this great new frontier for new forms of art and ways of working together. In the Berlin con­text, one can, for example, look back at the web­platform “In­ternationale Stadt Berlin”, founded by a group of artists in 1995 as an attempt to make the Internet more accessible to the wider public, and especially to promote, that is art made with the Internet as its primary medium of production and reception. 

The recent debate about EU copyright reform begs the question: Who should have access at all? And it’s precisely here that art has the most to say

The big difference today, however, is that the analogue and digital world are tightly interwoven as everyone (and everything) is connected, which means that providing ac­cess to the Internet does not seem a big as an issue as it was in the 1990s. The recent debates over the EU copyright reform however, possibly points in an opposite direction. It might just be the tip of the iceberg of a larger ongoing civil society interest in net politics, but it puts this central ques­tion of who has access back into focus. Only now, the battle for conditions of access are more concrete as this question also becomes about who has access to the necessary eco­nomic and organisational resources to at all be able to pub­lish and share online content?

We are living in times of the streaming economy, when most digital content is provided by big commercial platforms such as Netflix and Amazon and the cultural significance of the Internet is turning more and more into something that looks increasingly like the one­way medium of Television. With in­creasing polarisation on social media, we are also seeing the negative effects of McLuhan’s vision of the Global Village where everyone is drawn together in specialised, tight-knit communities with their own discourses, i.e. the famous filter bubbles. Against this background, the digital media and net­work experiments of the 1990s might seem naive, but their ideals of access for all and creative use of networks regain political momentum and returns in artistic practice in new ways. Artists respond to this complex analogue­digital, or let’s rather say “post­digital” reality and here I would like to mention two artists that have also been featured at the trans­mediale festival. Over the past decade or so, Berlin­based Dutch artist Rosa Menkman has developed a body of work related to the glitches and interstices of the digital, inviting us to reflect on the politics of seemingly mundane and mostly invisible digital artefacts such as file formats and image compres­sion algorithms. In one of her more recent works “How not to be Read” (2016) (in which you might detect the reference to the famous video by Hito Steyerl “How not to be Seen”), Menkman works with the common .jpg compression format that is used on a daily basis to modify the file size of images and transport them from one setting to another. More spe­cifically, Menkman makes use of so­called DCT Syphoning, Discreet Cosine Transform, which might sound very techni­cal but is deceptively simple. You might have come across the strange shifted block effect that sometimes appears on lesser quality jpg images? These appear because the jpg format works by reducing the image into 64 so called “macroblocks” that organise basic information about the im­age into a grid, containing, for example, information on col­our or hue. This reduction of complexity usually is usually undetectable to the human eye, but the sampling process doesn’t always work, and this is the task of the Discreet Co­sine Transform algorithm. By manipulating this aspect of the jpg compression, Rosa shows how you can enter text into the jpg and make it machine­non­readable yet decodable by humans, and thus effectively installing a means of encryp­tion into the jpg format. 

By making it machine­non­readable I am referring simply to the fact that the computer can’t recognise the text as text any longer as it has been “flattened” into other visual informa­tion. Thereby I would say that Rosa Menkman has created a beautiful post­digital intervention into digital image produc­tion, as a means of simple encryption that has the power to transmit messages in a non­computable way, paradoxical­ly by using digital means. For this work, Menkman won the Crypto Design Challenge organised by the Museum of The Image in Breda.

Criticality and autonomous infrastructures were an integral part of the early artistic experiments with digital technology and the Internet, and in this way, art has indeed worked as a distant early warning system

Menkman’s work can be seen as resistance to how we have become always visible and readable in digital culture, and in­stead provides a form of withdrawal or alternative communi­cational structure to the all­seeing network. Other artists are using new tools such as machine learning to provide new forms of critical visibility. This is the case, for example, with the Vframe project, which is a set of open­source tools devel­oped mainly by the Berlin based artist Adam Harvey. By utilis­ing computer vision techniques, Harvey provides organisa­tions that document war crimes such as Syrian Archive with automation tools to more effectively analyse the vast amount of online shared videos from conflict zones. This can for ex­ample work by using computational methods to summarise longer videos into shorter films, showing only the most es­sential visual information, as statistically determined by the software. As imperfect as such techniques may be, they nev­ertheless provide people a viable way to more quickly handle huge data­sets for vital information and thus, Vframe’s work is one where computer vision tools, which are usually devel­oped for control and repression, are implemented for more humanitarian use in civil society. 

Criticality and autonomous infrastructures were an integral part of the early artistic experiments with digital technology and the Internet, and in this way, art has indeed worked as a distant early warning system. Yet broader society seems not to have been very receptive, as we are living through the rath­er harsh consequences of what is maybe the fifth (or is it the seventh?) phase of digital culture. All is not lost though, since these younger generations of what we could call “post­digi­tal” artists and practitioners are engaging digital transforma­tions in ways that bridge the analogue and digital, producing artistic work that can be both aesthetically challenging and critically constructive. 

Rubrik: Specials


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