NEW FORMS FOR 21ST CENTURY CONCEPTUALISM 1
Author: DEW HARRISON
GRAY'S SCHOOL OF ART, ROBERT GORDON UNIVERSITY
This paper questions the teaching of digital media theory to new practitioners where it is understood as deriving from lens and screen-based media. It examines other routes through 20th century art history to current practice in digital art and determines the validity of Marcel Duchamp as influential on contemporary practice generally, and on Conceptual Art specifically. A case is made for the merging of computer- mediated and Conceptual Art and compounded in the work StarGlass, the transposition of Duchamp's thoughts and ideas into a hypermedia art system. The piece was shown during the presentation of the paper at MAAP 2004.
Conceptual art, digital art, Duchamp, hypermedia technology, non-linearity, large glass.
In the West, the economically privileged side of the North/South divide, we have a technocratic society where 21st century culture is digitally based and lives are largely computer-mediated. Artists here play with the materials and content of our culture and will cross territories in order to do this, to make the invisible visible and open our eyes and ears to what's going on around us. In this high-tech culture they can engage with unorthodox media, tools and ideas, they can use computers and new technologies to explore areas within and around art practice and cultural theory.
This has not been an easy transition, from the Modernist specificity of orthodox art material to the Postmodern techno- scientific inquiry and there are a number of art history trails available to follow. Charlie Gere, a Digital Art historian, gives a convincing argument for current new media art practice as an outcome of our present Digital Culture, (2002) 2 which, in turn, has emerged from a synthesis of art, technology and science, the Cybernetic era of influential discourses including Information Theory, General Systems Theory, Molecular Biology, Artificial Intelligence and Structuralism. According to Gere, art practice reflecting these concerns began exploring questions of networking, telecommunications, information, and the use of generative techniques. By the mid-to-late 1960s artists were incorporating technical electronic objects in their work and beginning to employ video and computers as new media. In her book *Digital Art*, Christiane Paul (2003) suggests that contemporary artists are using new materials, as ever, to engage with established art concerns, in that there are currently old concepts being explored within new artistic practices using emerging digital technologies, she states that "Some of the concepts explored in Digital Art date back almost a century, and many others have been previously addressed in various 'traditional' arts" 3.
Art history books concerning art for the 21st century now, necessarily, include sections on digital and sci-art, in *art tomorrow*, Edward Lucie-Smith (2002) understands technology as linked to an enhanced representation in art, which therefore centres on video and, to a lesser extent, on digital still photography. Although he does determine a direct link between made by scientists in order to explain their ideas can be seen,and indeed have been seen, as direct forerunners of ConceptualArt" 4. Margot Lovejoy (1990) 5 in her contribution to an*Art Journal* issue on computer art also makes a strong case forthe importance of photography as the basis for the use ofelectronic media in art practice. Lev Manovich (2001) looks atany new digital media practice through the theory and history ofthe still and moving image "I draw upon the histories of art,photography, video, telecommunication, design, and, last but notleast, the key cultural form of the 20th century - cinema" 6. However, other theorists and practitioners relate connectionsbetween art and technology through an investment in Conceptual Art and refer to Marcel Duchamp as seminal in this approach.
It is generally accepted that a direct line can be established between current art practice and the ideas of Duchamp, whether new technologies are involved or not. Michael Rush (1999) in his book on new media practice asks, "What branch of contemporary art, for example, would not claim Marcel Duchamp as a predecessor?" 7. Frank Popper (1993) 8 in his search for the roots of Electronic Art identifies seven different sources from which contemporary technological art has drawn its inspiration: Photography and Cinematography; Land Art; Light + Kinetic Art; Cybernetic Art; Installation Art; Performance; and Conceptual Art. All of which can call upon Duchamp as an initiator to some extent. In her search for an art-historical context for Internet Art, Rachel Greene (2004) states the "Many net artists feel a strong connection to the work of French artist Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968)" 9. Joseph Kosuth (1969) 10 sited Duchamp as a historical pivot between the Modern and the post-modern condition releasing art from its physical embodiment with his 'Readymade', which led to a re-questioning of what 'art' might be. Its essential nature therefore became conceptual andpertinent in the critique of Modernism that followed.
This view is upheld but questioned when in relation to computer- art by Manovich who speaks of a distinction between 'Duchamp- land' and 'Turing-land'. Duchamp-land being the established art world and Turing-land being exemplified by ISEA, Ars Electronica and SIGGRAPH. Manovich asserts that the convergence of these two worlds will never happen where they have different agendas, with Turing-land being oriented towards state-of-the-art computer technology rather than content. He states that even though "Duchamp-land has finally discovered computers and begun to use them with its usual irony and sophistication" it will not accept practice from Turing-land, for it is only ever concerned with 'art' and not with "research into new aesthetic possibilities of new media" 11. As Mark Rothko (1968) argued "Pictures must be miraculous... for anyone experiencing [them] later, a revelation" 12, Turing-land stops at the miraculous.
It is the 'discovery of computers' in Duchamp-land that is the concern of this paper. Although Duchamp is seen as impactive on so many aspects of 21st century art practice, and in particular for computer-mediated practice, it is his influence on Conceptual Art that is of significance here. My proposition is that computers are most efficiently engaged in contemporary practice through a symbiotic relationship with conceptualism and that this is most apparent where both computer-mediated art and Conceptual Art have been influenced by the work and ideas of Duchamp. This view is supported by Edward Shanken (2004) 13 who suggests a convergence of Art-and-Technology and Conceptual Art where both engage in discourse on indexing, information, and data storage and retrieval as witnessed in the early work of Art & Language and in the 'Software' exhibition 1970 curated by Jack Burnham (a known Duchampian).
The aptitude for the use of computers in Conceptual Art practice was initially voiced by Christine Tamblyn (1990) 14 in an article for *Art Journal*, where she stated that computers were designed to augment mental processes as opposed to being visual or manual aids. This understanding is in line with my own research and practice where I see both conceptual art and hypermedia dealing with the semantic association of ideas and thoughts in one interconnected narrative or artwork. Hypermedia being an evolving conception to facilitate the augmentation of human mental activity by emulating organic memory systems. My doctoral thesis (1998) 15 expounds this view and investigates conceptual art through Art & Language projects and Duchampian ideas supporting practice where the computer enables connected multimedia items in a manner which mimics human thought and memory retrieval. My work continues along this premise and the piece *Star Glass* is an exploration of the ideas of the forerunner of contemporary Conceptual Art, Duchamp, in that it transcodes the 'Large Glass' into a hypermedia art system.
Duchamp is the 'star', the StarGlass his constellation, the StarGlass is a navigable star-chart of the 4D space of electronic memory in 2D form. The memory is the hypermedia database of the 'Large Glass' itself.
The hypermedia network - StarGlass - is not to be limited to the connectivity defined by the creator, but must enable the viewer to organise the exploration of the subject (Durham's Glass) in a way that makes the most sense to them.
This is not an electronic book, or document, or encyclopaedia emulation; there are no text and buttons in discrete blocks, no 'back', 'forward', 'next', 'quit'. It is night, we are asleep and dreaming, we can indulge in the free-association of thought, we are guided by the stars and the night sky.
Every star in the night sky is a node, all of Duchamp is in the Glass, the StarGlass is made of star-nodes, the nodes are all of Duchamp - notes, quotes, readymades, paintings/sketches, preliminary models for his Glass elements, initial ideas for the Glass, music...
The StarGlass is a game-like piece, playful, intriguing, talking to the individual, to you. The Glass is concerned with interpretation with the formulation of 'meaning' derived from the connection of thoughts and ideas into whole concepts. Hypermedia allows for the linkage of interrelated, multi-media ideas into a semantic network, a conceptual art work. It is the perfect vehicle for the contemporary version of Duchamp's work, which has much to offer to art practitioners in the new millennium, it is the thought-net for a new consciousness.
What factors influence our own understandings of concepts, our own connections of associated items from which we extract meanings? Are we influenced by our environment? Not just our cultural and social environment, but also our physical, material environment. Are we single elements linked into a global network, part of a solar network, a universal network? Does the association of planets at our moment of birth define our position in the life network, dictate aspects of our personality, affect our understandings of the life-net, our consciousness, colour our choices and shape our interpretations.
To find meaning in Duchamp's Glass, the StarGlass allows you as viewer to select your own birth star sign of nodes and see what meanings arise from this combination of astrological determinings.
StarGlass was created with the understanding that a way forward for contemporary art practice is through the merging of Conceptual Art and hypermedia technology. While showing this work it is prudent to explain, in linear narrative form, its reason for being as a non-linear art system. The linear narrative exists, as distinct from the non-sequential narrative, only in the telling. Stories are told orally in short strands of linear recital, segmented and juxtapositioned for improved telling by subsequent narrators. This is an essential process if we are to continually engage and delight the listener but where simultaneous events take place, how can they be told in linear form?
In oral storytelling the teller determines the linear sequence of events, in a hypermedia system, the reader/viewer (listener) takes this action. Hypermedia enables the viewer to connect short strands of information in ways which make sense and give meaning to the whole work be it a text story or a multimedia art piece. StarGlass is a hypermedia art system, it has no beginning, middle or end in the formal linear narrative sense, instead it has an interface, the navigation of the system itself and the option to 'quit' whenever. Much the same as viewing a painting or the Large Glass itself, except that this Glass holds all Duchamp's ideas, texts, images plus the enlightening material from the boxes - as it was intended to be. Theinteractive, non-directive method of engagement with StarGlass makes the viewer work and think, it is neither a passive nor easy task making sense of Duchamp.
Hypertext has developed in parallel with Conceptual Art, they are both concerned with the linkage of associated ideas into concepts, with the structuring of text items into meaningful associations. Where hypertext has developed into hypermedia and the connectivity of multimedia items by semantic association, Conceptual Art has moved beyond discourse to incorporate materials other than language. Contemporary art with a conceptual base now incorporates cultural imagery and social narrative resulting in works of great complexity. Hypermedia is designed to manage complex systems in a web-like structure of interrelated items with electronic memory mirroring human memory. Arguably, the most complex piece of art to date has been Duchamp's 'Large Glass' entitled *La Mariée mise à nu par ses célibataires, même* or *The Bride stripped bare by her bachelors, even*. This piece, together with its accompanying 'Green Box' of notes and later work *Étant Donnes*, is generally regarded to be both the culmination and the summation of his work, occupying his thoughts between 1912-1923 when he abandoned it as finally unfinished leaving us with a seemingly unfathomable puzzle.
The Large Glass together with the boxes completes a corpus of non-linear, semantically associated ideas ripe for transposing into hypermedia. The Large Glass is the encasement of a plethora of non-sequentially inter-connected ideas and the transposition of these into a new media enables new readings of his work. When seen as a whole entity his work is riddled with cross-references and complex meanings generating different interpretations through its blatant ambiguity. The Large Glass and its semantic key, the Green Box, of 93 documents, sketches, calculations and notes together contain a wealth of association links proffering the conjunction of images and text ideal for hypermedia. The 'white box', "a l'infinitif", mostly refers to his thoughts on the fourth dimension. Duchamp's work can be taken as a richly endowed semantic network, which continues to inform contemporary conceptual artists.
The Large Glass was originally constructed in the form we know early last century, this glass encasement of connected ideas was the nearest Duchamp could get to his goal. The technology was not sophisticated enough at that time to support his interest in the 4th dimension. He wanted to portray his Bride in the 4th dimension and began with painterly abstractions of the figure culminating in the flatness of glass as a material nearing the state of no thickness or 'inframince' and therefore acting as a signifier to the 4th dimension. He replaced traditional (thick) paint and canvas as tools for picture making and renounced painting, declaring his Large Glass to be "a three-dimensional physical medium in a fourth dimensional perspective" 16. From Duchamp's notes it would seem that his interest in the 4thdimension was not aligned to the, then contemporary, 'relativity theory' proposed by Einstein but to the idea that the 4thdimension could be understood through geometry progressing from the n-dimension and aligned to the mathematics of Poincaré.
A single point has no (n) dimensions, two points define a line and have one dimension, two lines create a plane and have two dimensions, two planes create a volume or a three dimensional space or object, so what do two volumes create? Duchamp suggested that they should create a fourth dimensional space or object. Western art has been traditionally concerned with 2Drepresentations of 3D spaces, Duchamp considered that if 2D images could stand for a world of 3D objects it would follow that 3D objects could represent things in a 4D world. He conceived the Bride as a 3D representation of a 4D being, as a "two-dimensional representation of a three-dimensional bride who herself would be the projection of a four-dimensional bride in the three-dimensional world" 17. Painters are 2D artists working on a flat plane, sculptors are 3D artists working with material objects in real space and now, in the 21st century, we have digital artists working in the 4D of cyberspace concerned with the virtual space/object incorporating time.
As artists, technology is part of our everyday existence whether we take a utopian or dystopian view on this, our view may be the content of our practice, as also may be the interrogation of the medium we choose to use. We may follow a very Modernist practice of specificity, in this case new media for 4D art, and we may then uphold the autonomy of art throughour engagement with new technologies and scientific advances. We have to contend with the issues inherent in new media of connectivity, narrativity, navigation, time, virtual/real space, non-linearity... but also to deal with those current art issues of content, meaning, presence, identity, gender, personality, place, performativity, context, object...and to re-question the meaning and function of art itself in this technocratic age of 21st century capitalism and culture. Altogether a very Techno- Conceptual practice of which StarGlass is a prime example.
Dew Harrison (BA Fine Art, MA, MSc, Ph.D [CaiiA]) is a Research Fellow at Gray's School of Art for the Robert Gordon University, Scotland, where her research concerns digital and computer mediated art practice. Prior to this she has lectured in interactive art, multimedia and new media theory and was the research fellow for the two yr AHRB funded project *Digital Art Curation & Practice: Aesthetics, Participation & Diversity* based at the University of the West of England. Her own practice concerns the territory where contemporary conceptual art engages with new media and presents non-linear narrative and the semantic association of thought and idea in multimedia form. Her work has been shown in the UK and abroad in Ireland, Spain, Finland, Thailand, Singapore, America and Australia.
She curates international online exhibitions such as the *Net_Working* show with the Watershed Media Centre, Bristol and works as a Director of PVA. MediaLab, an artist-led organisation which initiates and supports good practice in new media art, now renowned for its *Labculture Ltd* Residency Programme. Her papers have been published and presented at conferences as diverse as Art History, Museology and Consciousness Studies, and she continues to lecture, mentor artists and supervise Ph.D students in the field of computer-mediated art.
1 Article published in LEA (Leonardo Electronic Almanac) http://mitpress2.mit.edu/e-journals/LEA/LEA2004/ez.features.htm
2 C. Gere, *Digital Culture* (Reaktion Books Ltd., 2002).
3 C. Paul, *Digital Art* (Thames & Hudson, 2003) p.7.
4 E. Lucie-Smith, *art tomorrow* (Terrail, 2002) p.219.
5 M. Lovejoy, "Art, Technology and Postmodernism: Paradigms,Parallels, and Paradoxes", in *Art Journal*, Fall, 257 ff.(1990).
6 L. Manovich, *The Language of New Media* (The MIT Press,2001) p.9.
7 M. Rush, *New Media in Late 20th-Century Art* (Thames &Hudson, 1999) p.9.
8 F. Popper, *Art of the Electronic Age* (Thames & Hudson,1993).
9 R. Greene, *Internet Art* (Thames & Hudson, 2004) p.19.
10 J. Kosuth, "Art After Philosophy (parts I-III)", in *Studio International*, 178, 9, pp.5-17 (1969).
11 L. Manovich, *The Death of Computer Art*. http://www-apparitions.ucsd.edu/~manovich/text/death.html (Last accessed March 2004).
12 M. Rothko, "The Romantics Were Prompted", in *Theories ofModern Art*, H B Chipp (Ed.), University of California Press pp.548-9 (1968).
13 E. Shanken, "Art in the Information Age", in *Conceptual Art: Theory, Myth, and Practice*, M Corris. (Ed.) Cambridge University Press pp.235-250 (2004).
14 C. Tamblyn, "Computer Art as Conceptual Art", in *Art Journal*, Fall, 253 ff. (1990).
15 D. Harrison, *Hypermedia Systems: the Creation and Interpretation of Concept-based Art*, CAiiA, University of Wales (unpublished) (1998).
16 M. Duchamp, *l'infinitif*, (The White Box) (1966).
17 See .