Karl-Erik Tallmo,

This text may not be re-published, printed or copied without the author's permission. Copyright © Karl-Erik Tallmo

Excerpt from a guest lecture at the Valand University College of Art in Gothenburg, Sweden, June 3d, 1998

Internet Art is Expanding - but also imploding

Those of us with access to digital networks are becoming increasingly like octopuses, with our arms outstretched into the world around us. This embrace is, however, not only a spatial one.

Even though archival WWW projects such as Archive.org and Kulturarw3 are still in their infancy, they are on the verge of forming something completely new, provided they are not hampered or shut down because they become unwieldy or because nobody can agree on legal rights.

It is a well-known fact that anybody can self-publish on the Web for very little money. These archival projects, however, provide these contemporary authors with a link to future generations and, in the case of Sweden, also a direct link to the national library.

”These archival projects, however, provide these contemporary authors with a link to future generations and, in the case of Sweden, also a direct link to the national library.”

Should one desire to save something for posterity - biographical data, a literary experiment, a retort in response to unfair treatment, transactions with opponents, anything at all - all one has to do is upload the text or images or sound onto one’s home page, and leave it up long enough for a file-collecting search robot to find it, and it will be preserved for what could be an unlimited amount of time.

Any one of us can do more or less what the earth (or at least the U.S.) collectively did when it sent Pioneer X into outer space in 1972, bearing data about humankind. It’s now possible for individuals to send a one-way message in a bottle into cyberspace, destination unknown. It has a greater chance of finding a recipient than either Pioneer X or an ordinary message in a bottle. For messages thrown into the ocean in a bottle, there are no search engines or free text searches. Using this new technology, we’re able to transmit our own personal balance-sheet into both time and space, allowing us to formulate our own posthumous reputation. Each word contains the potential for contact, a yet to be made link that is waiting to come into existence. In short, we are expanding.

This is the message that was sent with Pioneer X in 1972.

At the same time, however, our whole world is imploding on us.  Enormous amounts of information are being swept over us, but how much is getting through?  And  how much of that which does can be considered knowledge?

Despite the incredibly important distinction between outdated information and current, applicable knowledge, there is another perspective that should be given equal consideration: the monk attitude.

We should nurture those abilities which monks in their cells often relied upon: contemplation, thought, the ability to be able to shed illumination from different perspectives on information already gathered. Is the processing capacity of a monk’s brain wasted when he sits almost completely cut off from external stimulation, without access to the collective knowledge of the world which can be found only a mouse click away? Of course not. The brain still has access to itself, its ability for self-reflection, its capacity to refine old skills and find new relationships from among old memories and facts.

”I believe that computer networks need to be seen more as tools for thinking, rather than just simply as virtual pipelines for the transport of raw information.”

I believe that computer networks need to be seen more as tools for thinking, rather than just simply as virtual pipelines for the transport of raw information. Even the most refined of thoughts are reduced to mere raw information in a brain which does not understand, or which cannot contemplate and evaluate what it has gathered. Networks should be good at this. Remember that this isn’t about networks of computers, but rather networks of people with minds and feelings and intuition, but people with computers to aid them.  In other words, we should place more emphasis on think-flow rather than the flow of information.

When it comes to that particular part of the human experience known as art, we have reached an increasingly cerebral epoch, or rather, an epoch that sneers at epochs, styles, genres, and origins. In the past, art had a place in ritual, or even a direct function in the form of songs praising princes etc. Art has now surpassed even its own modernistic aspirations of being avant-garde and revolutionary, and psychoanalysis has long since allowed film directors to literally project their fantasies onto us. As a result, art has increasingly become a figment of the imagination, a commentary on everything including, perhaps most of all, itself, that metaplane around which all contemporary human endeavors seem, increasingly, to be circling.

The dream of the all-encompassing work of art is a recurring theme in the history of art, a dream which directly corresponds to the human experience and the way in which humans experience things. It is an art form supposed to appeal to several senses - there are and has been many names for it: intermedium, opera, mixed media, multimedia ...

We should have realized by now. Multimedia is a rather naive dream of a higher form of realism. It will, perhaps, improve once this new, and at the same time old, medium has matured in its computerized form.

In this context, the interactive aspects are, of course, presented as being something new. It’s true that they can often flesh out yet another dimension, and computers are more effective at doing so than other methods. But they can’t really be considered new. Every book is, to some degree, interactive. Even the telephone is an incredibly interactive medium. (It’s strange that in the more than one hundred years of the telephone’s existence, no art form has been created around it - unless one includes practial phone jokes and telephone sex as art.)

When Stewart Brand and Andy Lippman at MIT defined the term interactivity in the mid-1980s, they envisioned a mutual, concurrent activity for both participants, man and media or machine. Things would not be predetermined too far in advance, just as in ordinary conversation where one does not know very far in advance what one plans to say. Compared with these ambitions, one could probably conclude that the interactivity we experience today is meeting these lofty ambitions, somewhat in the same way that sham democracy relates to true popular rule.

”The story could, in fact, eventually long for the reader to return if he or she had not opened ’the book’ in a while!”

When, for example, will we see a story where the reader/participant not only interacts with the text, but where the main characters in the text also interact with each other internally, or with the reader in various conceivable triangular (or polygonal) relationships? The story could, in fact, eventually long for the reader to return if he or she had not opened “the book” in a while! In such a narrative structure one would, perhaps, no longer be talking about accounts or stories, as much as about situations. Wherever various intrigues, personalities, characteristics or desires intersect, situations are created which immediately devolve into new situations.

Now, it’s not my opinion that everything should be interactive, rather just the opposite. I’ve spoken warmly, on several occasions, in favor of a kind of “interpassivity”, of letting oneself become immersed along with and by the author of the book, in a virtual world that one cannot control but only enjoy. This touch of sham democracy, of pseudo-influence, of supposedly unpredetermined development is, at the same time, one of the strongest tools available in fiction and traditional narrative. Everyone uses it, it’s part of what could be called the basic contract between authors and readers, and it is ironic that so much of what is done today under the cloak of a newly released medium, in reality exploits that ancient trick, using new methods.

And it is happening too often. Much of multimedia suffers from the same horror vacui  that late medieval and Oriental art often displays. Every barren surface needs to be filled with some sort of decoration, some kind of embellishment. Of course this is a transitional problem. New media like to revel in their capabilities. I recall that a number of multimedia handbooks from the late 80s emphasized the importance of utilizing the medium to its fullest potential - a true multimedia presentation needed to simultaneously spew out text, images, animations and sound. That same concept came into play once everyone had the ability to create three dimensional diagrams in all the colors of the rainbow on the computer, with merely a few, simple keystrokes. I remember the ad for one of these programs. “Impress them with graphics!” read the ad. So often that is what happens in a new medium - an attempt is made to make an impression, to leave the spectator breathless, even if the message is lost in the process.

”Personally, I believe that synesthesia could be a more interesting model for multimedia design than the sensory fragmentation that now often is the result.”

Personally, I believe that synesthesia  could be a more interesting model for multimedia design than the sensory fragmentation that now often is the result. Synesthesia, according to many researchers, seems to be a profoundly human form of perception where various senses are linked so that one can smell colors or see images when hearing sounds, where spoken words look jagged and so forth. Many people have experienced this, and some researchers believe that this is the brain’s normal state of affairs when we are small children, but that we eventually create walls between these senses in order to constructively orient ourselves in the world. If we didn’t, things would end up like communication through a tangled telephone switch board.

It’s not enough to simply pump out one channel with sound, another with video and so forth, but rather one needs to take an interest in the relationships between them. How does a blind person experience a sculpture, for example? Usually, we think of sculpture as something visual, even though it was created using hands and often has a very tactile character. The new digital medium, perhaps, finally offers the possibility of an all-encompassing art form - something that reflects human experience more directly, not by stimulating all of one’s senses simultaneously, but by simply exploiting this incredibly subtle way of creating a strong illusion by choosing the appropriate sense to receive the right message, or even by stimulating an adjacent sense! Javanese shadow actors know what they’re doing - for them “less is more”. Perhaps one could also say that “less is something else”.

Translated from Swedish by Henrik Nordström.

[Back to overview of lectures]
[Back to Karl-Erik Tallmo's start page]