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The Aesthetics of Technical Difficulty
Mark Jones

If there can be three things said of the characteristics of electronic art regardless of genre, they might be these:

  • Electronic art is influenced by the limitations of technology
  • Technical difficulties play a role in the very aesthetics of electronic art
  • Artists working in electronic art are as affected by the aesthetics of failure as they are by their own concepts

By the aesthetics of technical difficulty, I don't mean the artistic failure of the actual work itself from a critical point of view, but rather the result of what happens when your computers crash, your internet connection goes down, or your data projector blows up. I mean the quality of a work in which everything comes to a brief (or perhaps not so brief) standstill, and resulting responses of the artist and audience alike.

Having worked in and studied electronic art for the past eight years, I know of very few works that have been technically trouble-free. And I don't mean from within the production stage of a work, I mean when the piece is mounted, performed, installed, whatever. There you are, all your admirers observing the fine work you've spent plenty of sweat, time, and probably some of your own money on, and seemingly out of nowhere something goes wrong and your work basically shuts down. If you were a traditional painter, this would be akin to the paint on your canvas suddenly beginning to run while the latest batch of curious onlookers begin to wonder if you actually meant for this to happen.

This issue of the aesthetics of technical difficulty came up recently while I was in England giving a lecture to a group of performance students at the University of Salford, which is within Manchester. We were reviewing the limitation of the Internet in particular, and the daring unpredictability of performances which depended on a certain amount of bandwidth to feed audiences in other locations. As my cohort Steve Dixon pointed out, low to medium bandwidth webcasted performances are often reduced to shadows of their original selves: pixelated performers, rough motion, shadows or halos following them around, choppy audio, and so on. (If you've never seen this effect for yourself simply view any low-bandwidth [28K] video clip with Real Player or another media viewer.) His suggestions was that the visual quality of webcasted performances had an aesthetic unto their own, independent of that of the original or of traditionally televised performances, and that this quality should be considered when planning webcasts. (Of course, this brings up another interesting issue around technological classism: when I can afford a faster connection than you, I have a better chance of receiving a webcast that is closer to its original.)

To add to this train of thought, I reviewed several online performances in which the Internet connection doesn't just slow down -- it dies, and the technical people have great difficulty getting it re-established.

When painters study their craft, part of their training involves learning different qualities of their tools and media: an acrylic paint will render a different look from an oil-based or watercolour paint; painting on canvas gives a different texture than painting on board. Likewise, performers learn of how to play to different types of theatres: the way you relate to an audience in a proscenium theatre is differently than that of a theatre-in-the-round. These artistic practices aren't just about the intent of the artist in the execution of their work, they are also about the qualities that are imposed by their public environments, media, and other external factors. You can't separate these things, and therefore to these 'traditional' artistic disciples it becomes very important to understand the relationship between the internal concept and the external environment.

In industrialized nations, technology has become the hearth around which we gather to warm our souls. We take its presence for granted; and yet, anytime there is an interruption in its functionality, we are immediately reminded of its limitations, and of the dangers that comes with investing so much of our trust in it (been to California lately?). In spite of its promise to the contrary, technology has made our lives more complicated by imposing on it a series of concerns that are unique to the very characteristics of its presence in our lives.

Did anyone really believe the rhetoric of the paperless society in the early 1990s? Perhaps we all wanted to -- at the time. And this serves an important lesson: the progress of technology, and indeed of society, is a result of the tension that exists between the realities of today's limitations and the hopes for tomorrow's promises. Just as a meditation master's task is to stay in the moment while simultaneously understanding the ultimate goal of a future enlightenment, we constantly wrestle with the imperfections of our machines while trying to design ways to make it more perfect, or at least error-free, next time.

Is a perfect technology possible? To suggest that is is contrary to the nature of human creation -- even our bodies are imperfect. Some theorists argue that the very evolution of human beings are being changed by the impact of our technology, and that perhaps as a result, we are to become more perfect.

But until that happens, the current reality is quite clear: our machines are flawed. Things will crash. Bulbs will burn out. Power will fail. And so, for an artist working in electronic media not to muse on the aesthetic implications of technical failure in their work is like a painter who doesn't want to bother with understanding how the type of paint he uses affects his creation, or how an audience is affected by it.

This is not an easy thing to do. No one (at least no one I know of, anyway) conceives a project with failure in mind. "Let's see, I have three data projectors pointing to that white walls in the back, and the soundscape is very sublime until an audience member walks in. Then, suddenly, we blow a fuse! BRILLIANT!" The possible variations of things that could go wrong are often so vast that to spend time determining them would be considered a huge distraction by most artists.

Still, the issue remains. Maybe it's time some insightful curator or director out there produced a show which triggered some thinking on this subject. Until the aesthetics of technical difficulty begin to work their way into the critical discourse of electronic art, we're all still just whistling in the power failure.

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