What is missing?

by Neal White

An introduction to the Critical Practices element of the Post graduate Departments. Writing and commentary aimed at stimulating debates and response for future publication.

What is missing?

Exformation and practice

In his essential work, especially for anyone wishing to study this area, Charlie Gere explores the advent and the development of issues relating to what he terms ‘Digital Culture’ . Gere explores the inter-relation of critical theory, technological and cultural discourse within the framework of a historical study. Successfully and articulately exploring the relationship between cybernetics, systems and information theory, cultural activity and the outcomes of digital media experiments in art and technology, we begin to get the message; that digital culture is less instrumental than it is a discourse set in relation to its own medium, that there is a relation between ideas embedded in technology and our cultural activities as a whole. But in examining the production and work at media arts festival, of media art and technology groups, of cultural producers, in the flesh, you would be forgiven for an experience in which you might ask; what is missing?

In Mark C.Taylor’s useful exploration of developments in technological and cultural forms leading to ‘the moment of complexity’ a route is traced from the grid to the system to the network (modernism, post-modernism and…). The text is described and paralleled with examples of material forms of cultural practice. However, in discussing the writing and formation of this text, Taylor outlines the ideas of Tor N_rretranders compelling and useful way of thinking about the philosophy of consciousness and information, which proves essential to examining the products and outcomes that we are currently exploring in networked and digital forms.

Exformation is perpendicular to information. Exformation is what is rejected en route, before expression. Exformation is about the mental work we do in order to make what we want to say sayable. Exformation is the discarded information, everything we do not actually say but have in our heads when or before we say anything at all. Information is the measurable, demonstrable utterances as we actually come out with it. The number of bits or characters in what is actually said.

- Tor Norretranders

N_rretranders description of exformation relates further to the ideas of entropy and noise explored in Shannon’s information theory outlined by Taylor and Gere. Taylor goes on to state; `Exformation, in other words, is what is left out as information is formed from noise. As such, exformation is not simply absent but is something like a penumbral field from which information is formed`. What is clear is that although this discussion relates to consciousness and language, it resonates within the field of our practices, as those of us who are users, or viewers, or participants understand, there is something missing from our experience with digital media.

We know that there are many who object to Shannons ideas of information already; the argument being the difference between what is said and what could be said, or simply put, his theory is an equation to work out ‘how thick to make telephone cables’. But N’s ideas are more than about bits and language, it is a fundamental philosophical point relating to communication between people, at the level of the message. And in terms of digital media, the message is clear:

Where man is equipped to manage millions of bits per second in a meaningful way, he now processes only a few bits per second from the computer monitor. The sensuality of material processing has been stripped from the work process, and consciousness must make do with very few bits per second for nourishment. It is like fast food: There is almost nothing to digest, no bones and no fibre to discard during and after.

McLuhans ideas of hot and cold media, message and medium dissolve into the logics and realities of the bit rate that we can consume through a conscious process, but it also reveals that unconscious data has a role too As networks .

In contemporary terms, our understanding of complexity and networks leads us towards holistic concepts in which there are ‘cyborg’ and ‘post-humanist’ ideas at play. N Katherine Hayles states that in fact ‘the conscious self’ is an upstart in terms of western philosophical thought, and is not the whole story. But without getting bound in by too much ‘complexity theory’, I would seek to emphasise the phenomenological and physiological theories as described by Marcel Merleau-Ponty. In his text ‘The Primacy of Perception’, Merleau-Ponty describes the relation of the body to the object, through perceptual and physiological terms, privileging the eye, but recognising the interplay of all of our senses. For it is the body that perceives, not the object or information that shapes our perception of it:

For us the body is much more than an instrument or a means; it is our expression in the world, the visible form of our intentions. Even our most secret affective movements, those deeply tied to the humoral infrastructure, help to shape our perception of things.

Whilst these ideas have long been considered as a fundamental theory for contention in art practice, there are also profound implications for an understanding of the physical experience of digital media and the sensualtity of the data therein. In other words, it is the essential nature of our relationship to the ‘object’ in digital media as well as aspects of the message that are often overlooked. We cannot deny that all media is experienced, as light on the retina, or sound waves in the ear. But largely this is down to data and information, language or txt [sic]. It is not the sensuality that was contained within traditional media. To see or hear another person, see their gestures, the tone of the voice etc of most broadcast media, we get the exformation as sensuality. We may have developed tools that extend an instrumental technological experience of media, (cyborgian perhaps) but this means our ability to absorb the sensuality of data is lost through a fundamentally restricted channel of reception and delivery.

Lets consider the monitor. If we take computers not at face value, but at ‘ interface value’ , we recognise that for most, this is a mysterious machine in which much is hidden from us, and we do not comprehend it and how it actually works. But we are also experiencing the monitor physically (despite being locked into a closed loop of information exchange, in which we are forced to create a speculative reading of the exformation of the message. Who ever misunderstood the tone of an email, for example?) I would assert that in examining the work of practitioners, and students interest alike, there is a strong case and good evidence to show there is dissatisfaction with the technologist and the tools with which we are supplied, the monitor and screens which screen us from the world. It is evident such that practitioners are not just trying to create new content for platforms, but to create new means of delivery, from scratch, with their own electronics and a focus on more enriched sensual systems.

But the theory of exformation as an analogy also outlines the essential theoretical debates that prefigure our reading of outcomes and of digital media practice. If we compare it to say the field of study of fine art and critical practice, and its relationship to conceptual development, critical discourse and theory, it can be argued that exformation is operating on two levels (at least). In terms of the practitioners and their material outcomes, we can recognise there are shifts that have closed down and expanded formalism, ongoing (some say resolved) conflicts between aesthetics (beauty, relational etc) and authenticity, subjectivity and objecthood, etc. It is in this context that a well versed viewer can come to be close to the work of an artist or individual or movement through the theoretical and historical provenance that the successful work may make reference to, the contextual exformation. But there is also the possibility that we can know and understand through a shared sense of the experience of the creation of the work, exformative processes; how long it might have taken, the material complexity etc. This is bound into the practice of the work that historically we can understand in relation to painting, carving, printing, even if it is time-based and technological, such as video art. We all made a painting in ourchildhood for example, and we understand its challenges in terms of craft skills, but also a contextual and historical reading (Picasso, Pollock etc etc).

The evidence of the perceived thing lies

Digital media is not a new field whose contexts are created solely by its own technological and popular usage, as the technologically deterministic discourses surrounding internet, mobile communication etc sometimes imply. It is rooted in traditions of information theory, of machines, of philosophy and of politics, but it has its pioneers, who are increasingly recognised. Pataphysics, Experiments in Art and Technology (EAT), Artists Placement Group (APG), to name but a few, give us important insights into the possibilities and mistakes. Slowly but surely there is broad recognition of the influence and importance of the individual and groups practices that define these movements, but more importantly there is the possibility to explore their legacy as a condition of contemporary digital media..

If we are to be honest and face up to the inherent dilemma that plague works in digital media for practitioners and viewers / users alike, we must face up to the realities of what exformation means. The first problem relates to the practice and the historical; the idea that the practice in which we engage not only has its forebears in terms of discourse, between the development of a technological determinism relating to cybernetics, information theory etc, but also in the specific fields in which we seek to contextualise it, design, politics, publishing, art etc. The information or outcomes need to express this in terms of their references through practice, and an in depth and focussed understanding of an area of interest. But this is also the problem, potential exformation is vast, and we must ensure that the information contained in the outcome, clearly defines, or at least alludes to, its relative nodes in our shared comprehension of its exformative elements.

Secondly, we must recognise that our relationship to digital media is always through a physical layer, perceptually and physiologically. If we are not relying on the spoken word, the figurative, the personality or actor, we are unable to process the sensuality of exformation with the same richness. The text message, web page, interactive installation is communicating at extremely low-bandwidths. The pathways are restricted, and there is little heat in the message.

In the final analysis, it is critical then to consider the range of exformation in relation to the piece of information. Whilst a sociological understanding of a network of nodes, data and content takes us away from any reading of the material as simply representing capitalist ideals (devoid of a discourse to product and use value), to argue against the perception of media in its physical forms is to understand only the narrow bandwidth of information. On a day to day level, our increasingly shared experience of technology will certainly affect the wider audiences ability to develop an exformative view of the aesthetic process leading to digital media outcomes, and therefore the role of the practitioner. During this ongoing process, the critical question for the practitioner or designer of information environments, networked media or physical interactive artworks is then a positive: ‘What is missing?’

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