Unit 3: Post-Digitalism
- Postdigital change of perspective as composition strategy
- Postdigital imperative
- Postdigital practice as disclosure tool
- Interface view
- Composite view and analogue discretization
- The digital error as a visibility tool
- Virtuality and uncoupling
- Summary and virtual imperative
- Outlook “With the eyes of the machine”
Do we already speak in everyday life as we do in internet forums? (McCulloch, 2019) Do children first learn to swipe pages and not turn them? Do food couriers (Lund, 2019) in the “gig economy” feel that they are part of a decentralized computer system? Do we see an „Airbnb“ flat as a physical protrusion of a platform capitalist algorithm? Does an empty office building feel like a scene from a detailed animated computer game? Do we evaluate the colour gradient of a sky according to resolution criteria of a graphics card in bit depth? Are we, today, trying to become more like our social media profile rather than creating an image of ourselves? Do we go offline because today’s normal state is online?
To put it more generally: do we see the analogue world with digital eyes or the analogue with digital eyes? And what role can art take on to reveal and address these views? How characterized have digital media and technologies become so that we cannot help but reflect these aspects in art? These questions drive me in my own perception and my compositional activity. In the following, I would like to examine these aspects step by step.
The digital revolution is over. (Negroponte, 2008)
With these words, Nicholas Negroponte proclaimed an age in which the use of digital tools and representational forms is no longer the exception, but has become the rule. (Miyazaki, 2008) Today, our interactions, perspectives and body images are significantly influenced by this reality. Even though technical fields continue to develop and a fascination for technology persists, the digitalization and virtualization of our living environment is, although not yet complete, so far advanced that it can be taken for granted. Digitality is no longer a sign of the future. It is slowly disappearing from our focus: it is its absence that continues to catch our attention. (Negroponte, 2008) In this newly established constitution, our view of the analogue, non-digital environment is also changing. This observation is reflected in the term post-digitalism.
Post-digitality is to be understood here as a shift in awareness. This readjustment of a perception shaped by digital influences can also be understood as an artistic strategy: As a technique that actively addresses the interweaving of the analogue and the digital. Art can offer to make these conditions palpable by positioning and contrasting perspectives next to each other.
Post-Digitalism and potential for the arts
The postdigital perspective is based on an analogue world which is completely permeated by digitality. The use of the prefix “post” before the term “digital” refers not to the end of digitality, but to the moment when the digitalization of cultural living reality is more or less established. “Post” initially describes not a state after digitalization, in which there is no longer any digitality, but rather, its complete distribution. On the one hand, this term can now describe the extent to which our modes of seeing, interaction, communication and reception have changed as a result of widespread digitalization. On the other hand, this shift describes a differentiated position towards digitality. With the social, economic and governmental integration of all digital technologies, they have lost some of their original magic. In the postdigital viewpoint, digital technology is not seen as a pure tool, but as including its cultural implications.
The starting point for postdigital upheavals is digitality and its properties of computability, discretization and fragmentation. But the implications meant here emerge only in the subsequent step: in the broad use and cultural integration of these technologies. Consequently, a number of elementary reference points are now available for social and artistic disposal. Central are questions of manipulability (this being simplified and more strongly established by digital tools) and connected to this, of authenticity. Easy access to processing and synthesis techniques as well as to large amounts of data has enabled the creation of qualitatively new potentials here (and also democratized their availability). (Cornell et al., 2015) (Weibel, 2006)
Also affected are representation in general and of physical bodies in concrete terms. A changed depiction and reception in the context of the postdigital shift goes hand in hand with virtualization and leads to an increased decoupling of original and image, as well as cause and effect. As a consequence, aspects of body perception, identity, authenticity and social interaction are affected.
Role of electronics in contemporary music
Parallel to social development in the age of digitalization, the use of electronic media in the arts – and also specifically in art music – has changed. In multimedia music, electronic content and processes are, by now, rarely an end unto themselves; rather, they are used as representations– i.e. exemplifying, descriptively or symbolically. Comparable to the stagnation of material progress in instrumental composition (Lehmann, 2012) (Lehmann, 2016) , there has been a change in the way digital tools and content are used. Sound effects, projections, synthesis programs and transformations are, for the most part, established techniques that are increasingly seldom sufficient as the sole raison d’être for a work. Then again, the creative field of research is all the more diverse, searching for forms of presentation and interaction that discursively deal with our changed reality of life, and therefore, with digital tools and representations.
Key features of Post-Digitalism
If one understands the postdigital shift as a change in the perception of digital content, or as a reorientation of position in relation to digitality, the question arises as to how art can, or should, behave respectively. I find this issue extremely relevant in the context of multimedia composition. Due to the social connotation of digital media, I would even go so far, in the sense of a postdigital imperative, as to say that these connotations can no longer be blanked out. The implications of digital technologies have become an integral part of the digital itself.
An artistic examination of this range of themes offers the chance to make these aspects sensually perceptible and directly tangible. Because the consequences of post-digitality particularly influenced perception, experience and also physical interactions, it is obvious that this level should also be dealt with. The technique of perspective-comparison can enable the possibility to compare different modes of perception and interaction. In this way, opposing modes of presentation and communication are juxtaposed and thus made tangible. It is intended to bring into focus those consequences of digitalization which are invisible, unnoticed or disregarded. As there is a noted disappearance of technology in the wake of post-digitality, art can offer space here, to once again make the imminent characteristics of digital objects the center point of the observation.
Computability and post medium condition
Screening, quantification, sampling and discretization can be understood as the basic characteristics of the digital. Representation in the digital had a primary series of implications, of which the calculability of digital objects must be mentioned first; in other words, the fact that digital objects may be items resulting from the most diverse processes of analysis, conversion and transformation. This leads to the removal of the boundaries between different types of media (“post-media condition”). (Kittler, 1986) (Weibel, 2006) (Manovich, 2001) Above all, however, media objects after digitalization are to be processed and not just to be received. These characteristics lead to a change in media use and also have a lasting influence on the way non-digital media are used or perceived. In this early phase, attributed to the era of new media and the transition from Web 1.0 to Web 2.0 , digital content and new media are still perceived disruptively – i.e. as a disparate element – in an otherwise analogue, non-digital world. Although the influence of this content began to be reflected in the non-digital world, the separation of these two worlds remained intact for the time being.
Screens and interfaces
Post-digitality now positions itself at the point to which digitalization has progressed: to such an extent, that it is now firmly integrated into everyday cultural life, permeating the entire society. This is accompanied by the observation that, on the one hand, digital content is becoming increasingly invisible or hidden, and that, on the other, our perception of the entire non-digital world is increasingly shaped by the reception of digital objects: explicitly a phenomenon that has to do with visibility and viewing habits, or general modes of perception. Such imprinting is essentially based on the way screens and interfaces are handled and on their changing roles and influences. Following screen fixation and software interface analyses, the postdigital perspective now assumes that, even without an interface and without a screen, these modes of perception come into play, making the analogue world appear through this framing. The media error has been presented as a basic postdigital concept: thus, the first step from a digital medium’s use to its reflection could be made. An error can be understood here as a tool to reveal the digital medium’s quintessence and thereby to advance quasi towards the object’s characteristics. It is also a process that directs the focus from the surface to the inside of the medium and, as such, a process of changing perspective. The postdigital turn is therefore not only a change of perspective in perception-based media reception but also a reorientation of content.
Post-digitality is also understood as a phase in which a critical rethink took place, following the widespread establishment of digital media. After digital technologies were increasingly used for negatively charged practices (surveillance, tracking, Castilian data mining, etc.), the original optimism of digitality is now followed by a differentiated opinion. In summary, this process can be understood as an eye being refocussed, from the digital surface onto the medium and practices behind it.
In parallel, the internet’s permeation of society and the resulting impact can be observed under the catchphrase “post-internet.” This perspective describes a view, interaction and art form, taking place in the constant knowledge of the existence of the internet. The theory is that certain practices and objects only take place in a particular form because the internet exists. These processes can be concretely or only indirectly shaped by the internet, and are explicitly not necessarily linked to technical realization. If they are, however, localized within the internet, they use the tools reflectively. Here too, a more critical view of the implications of the internet can be observed. In addition to the internet’s most obviously used platforms, visual languages and codes, the underlying structures of networking, the semantic web, media use and presentation formats are also formative. The aim here is to link the analogue and digital worlds and to sensitize the eye to this connecting point.
The strands of post-digitality and post-internet are partially grouped under the term “new aesthetic”. Within this perspective, the focus is specifically on the visual impact of digital and internet-based technologies. While the aspect of visual imprinting was a sub-area in the above-mentioned concepts, the presence of virtually imprinted elements in the physical world is the central point in the new aesthetic. The new aesthetic deals with everything invisible, but integrally contained in the essence and reception of these elements, as James Bridle puts it:
“New Aesthetic is concerned with everything that is not visible in these images and quotes, but that is inseparable from them, and without which they would not exist”. (Bridle, 2013)
The central issue is, therefore, the visibility and invisibility of the digital, a matter of sensitizing the gaze, to recognize how we look at the analogue through a digital-influenced perspective, and how we already experience our analogue world as being shaped by digital influences. Christiane Paul and Malcolm Levy describe this interplay, the two sides of which are mutually dependent, as follows:
“The New Aesthetic seems to be a twofold operation: first, the confluence and convergence of digital technologies in various materialities; and second, the ways in which this merger has changed our relationship with these materialities and our representation as subjects. The New Aesthetic captures the embeddedness of the digital in the objects, images and structures we encounter on a daily basis and the way we understand ourselves in relation to them. It captures the process of seeing like, and being seen through, digital devices”. (Paul et al., 2015)
These aspects of the merging and blending of the virtual and the physical and also of the digital with analogue can be extended here to all the observations portrayed and should be understood as a quintessence of these statements. This concentration on the process of perception in the digital context is, for one thing, an observational process, but it is also, as is sometimes implied, an active procedure and the conscious assumption of critical observation. At this point, there is a possible range of ways as to how these insights and works can be actively used. This can happen in various contexts – and one of them is art.
In The World is not a Desktop , Marc Weiser, a computer scientist at Xerox PARC, inquires as to the characteristics of perfect technology and suggests this answer:
“A good tool is an invisible tool”. (Weiser, 1994)
The quote comes from 1993 when this idea was a noble ideal and digital technology still far from it. Desktop PCs were physically and visibly present, and every kind of technology was very clearly recognizable as such. Almost 30 years later, we are a few steps further ahead. The visibility and invisibility of technology have taken on a whole new significance. The omnipresence of digital content and its systematic reduction and integration into the physical world makes it disappear in our perception, making it an integral part of our lives. Perhaps we must already rephrase the statement above to “This World is a Computer Desktop.” In any case, we can today at least stop for a moment and ask ourselves, to which extent the inner life of the computer – that is, digital order and the associated working processes – have already permeated our world. When workers, guided by algorithms, navigate their way through the city; when airports are a digital check-in, moulded into architecture; or when newspapers look just like their online version: we then feel, perhaps, the influence of digitality, which is literally permeating our world in ever greater depth.
Several explicit and implicit imprints of our communication and interaction with media are initially resulting from the fundamental characteristics of digital technology (and more generally, in the next step, also extending beyond media use). The screen, the interface and also the predictability of digital content opened up a new field in the 1990s. Due to its widespread dissemination, the digital became increasingly invisible (and its influence nevertheless more visible). The omnipresence of computation – “ubiquitous computing“, as Weiser calls it (Weiser, 1991) – often eludes our attention and only returns to our consciousness when an error occurs. As a perfect technique, Weiser cites a pair of glasses, which normally seem invisible to the wearer. At this point, Benjamin Hill observes that a fine crack, or dirt on the lens, makes glasses very noticeable. (Hill, 2001)
The first rupture through digitality was named by Kim Cascone with the term “post-digitality.” (Cascone, 2000) The digital mistake and disillusionment with new media established a glitch aesthetic of its own, which became the starting point for a series of further viewpoints, addressing the permeation of the analogue world by the digital and questioning how our entire perception has already been shaped by this content. Similar observations can be made in the context of a “post-internet” shift, here exploring the influence of the internet upon representation, communication and interaction and the changed role of the internet after virtually complete expansion.
The permeation of the analogue world by network and digital technology has created a visual language with a strong virtual character. This overlap and visibility are the focus of a current called “new aesthetic“, as Just Hodgson describes it:
“The New Aesthetic is concerned with the blurring of boundaries associated with ubiquitous computing”. (Hodgson, 2019)
At the centre of the shifts being introduced in this chapter is always a sensitization to the visibility or perceptibility of digital technology. To some extent, this is an active process of (re)disclosing[Here, as in later chapters, the word “disclosure” has been chosen to represent the idea of making something visible (Sichtbarmachung)] : This being an active and critical process that makes hidden or blended-out content perceptible again.
Referring to Giorgio Agamben’s definition of a paradigm, it seems reasonable to speak of a paradigm in the context of the postdigital and thus to focus on how we think – and not what we think about. (Meskin et al., 2014) (Agamben, 2002) It is interesting to look at the changes in interaction, presentation and communication that have resulted from digitalization. Consequently, the theme doesn’t primarily concern the use of digital content and technology, but rather the resulting new usage modes. Thus, these post-topics are to be understood as shifts and not as a break in evolution. (Cramer, 2015) The focus is not on the fact that digital technology is being used (or is no longer being used), but on the consequences that have resulted from the technology. John Culkin’s quote from 1967 can therefore also be applied to the digital era:
“We shape our tools, and afterwards, our tools shape us.” (Culkin, 1967)
Postdigital change of perspective as composition strategy
Based on the provocative theory that the digital revolution is already over and that society’s digitalization has progressed so far as to be taken for granted, I would like to propose the term “postdigital imperative.” In my opinion, the phasing out or refusal of digital technology should now only be understood as an active process. Making a film on Super8, writing a novel on a typewriter, watching feature films on VHS or not having a mobile phone is always a statement: it is a conscious rejection of a certain form of technology or deliberately nostalgic escapism.
Dealing with digital content has influenced our perception in such a way that ignoring these factors in an artistic work can only be a conscious decision: A sensitivity to the bridge between these views has developed, and the thematization of this perspective change takes on the overriding role. In concrete terms, this means that currently, digital technology cannot be thought of without including the accompanying “dis-illusionments” [in the German text, the word “Enttäuschung” is used, not only to describe disillusionment but also the revelation of an illusion].
Surveillance, commercialization, omnipresence or manipulability of content are each firmly anchored in the collective consciousness as (not sole) consequences of digitalization. The use of digital media is therefore always a quotation of such connoted techniques. Of course, it is allowed, possible and desirable to create music or art that does not require digital content. But if it does so without the knowledge of the digital world, then it is naïve, historical or ignorant.
Postdigital practice as disclosure tool
If art is to be assigned a critical function in the context of digital transition, this must be sought in the reflection of the perception modes of technical changes. For if technology and its influences become invisible, then the humanities (and art) must become active, as Cathy Davidson writes:
When technology is accepted, when it becomes invisible, [we] really need to be paying attention… The more technology is part of our lives, the less we think about it, the more we need rigorous humanistic thinking that reminds us that our behaviours are not natural but social, cultural, economic, and with consequences for us all. (Davidson, 2007)
A decisive function of postdigital art can therefore be to address specifically this invisibility, to reflect upon it, to question it, and ultimately to disclose it. [In the German text, the phrase “sichtbar zu machen” is used not only to mean “ to make visible” but also to disclose or reveal.] In this way, mechanisms can be revealed, visual codes cited or, on the contrary, ways found to hide things from digitality. A substantial part of postdigital art is thus concerned with the visibility of technologies. “Disclosure” is meant here in the sense that it becomes fundamentally – and not just visually – perceptible or palpable. The invisibility or disappearance in our perception forms the basis for this. The disclosure of digital contents, logics and programmes is an artistic practice that has become increasingly differentiated over the past ten years.
The digital surface in the physical world
One approach is the integration of digital surfaces or content into the physical world. In Hello World , for example, Aram Bartholl places an oversized Google Maps “pin” in front of the Kunstverein in Kassel. The sculpture, several metres high, is an object otherwise exclusively located on a digital map, transferred by Bartholl into the physical world. In so doing, the overlapping of a digital map and the physical world is thematised and made visible. Scott Kelly and Ben Polkinghorne take a similar path with their series You might also like . Here, large signs are placed in front of landmarks. On one of them are three illustrations under the title “You might also like“, suggesting similar places of interest. This view and practice of linking content is initially a clear internet phenomenon, as the visual and interaction habits of a programme are transferred to the physical environment.
In her installation Brush Stroke , Elisa Giardina Papa created a curved object covered with a grey-white chequerboard pattern. This pattern corresponds to the Photoshop code for a transparent – i.e. cut out or exempted – surface. The placement of this object consequently suggests that a section of reality has been cut out and that we are looking at the empty area behind it. Here, too, a view of the physical world is explicitly transformed in such a way as to create the impression that we are looking at a screen or a program surface.
“Ruben Wu photographs drones equipped with light fixtures, which fly geometric shapes outside in the open, for long exposures.” (Herzig, 2019) The results are bright stripes of light drawing abstract, minimalist patterns in the air, against an ultra-clear, realistic background. This gives the impression of seeing a picture that has been reworked in post-production. It looks as if a digital design has been placed on the naturalistic photo. I use a comparable technique in my piece Acceptance. Here, a 3D-rendered form is inserted into the end of a documentary film in post-production. It is a floating polygon of light, wafting surreal and unreal over a lake in the Alps.
Representation of digital processes
The postdigital aesthetics propagated by Kim Cascone allowed a shift in focus towards the digital medium and digital processes themselves. The artwork’s subjects increasingly became the digital working method and the revelation of the digital storage media. A further aspect is the exposure of the digital tool itself. In Jennifer in Paradise , Constant Dullaart uses the first sample photo(Comstock, 2014) delivered with Photoshop’s first version and creates an exhibition consisting only of this image, to which the classic, standard Photoshop effects have been applied. This exhibition thus becomes an exhibition of iconic effects in itself. (Dörig, 2018)
Referencing Alvin Lucier’s I Am Sitting In A Room , Patrick Lidell transferred this principle to the YouTube converter algorithm in his video work „I Am Sitting In A Video Room 1000“. Lidell uploaded a video of himself to YouTube one thousand times in succession, first uploading, then downloading it, only to upload the result once again. As a result of the repeated uploading and associated conversion and compression by YouTube, the video contained increasingly more artefacts. These artefacts are described for the codec and processing on the video platform.
Consequently, the original video becomes increasingly unrecognizable, and as the iteration progresses, the converter artefacts are the leftovers. Similar work is also available with Facebook and Instagram image coders. Hannes Seidl chooses a similar way to visualize the algorithm in his composition Mehr als Die Hälfte [More than Half], in which he applies an inverse MP3 encoding process to audio material. In this way, only those parts are made audible that would otherwise be omitted in MP3 encoding. Processes of data moshing (Dörig, 2018) or applying software operations to another medium (e.g. applying audio effects to image material) also fall into this category.
An opposing practice regarding visibility is the active process of “making-invisible“. This refers to activist processes that pursue the goal of breaking through digital visibility. In this case, it also includes processes of digital tracking, face recognition, computer vision in general, data protection and personal rights in digital space. It is not about the previously mentioned exit from digital society (“going off-grid”) or the simple fading out of digitality, but about actions which, in full awareness of the technology, actively deal with it and boycott, satirize or illustrate it.
Meanwhile, there are multitudinous technical and artistic realizations with which to circumvent face‑tracking. The Bentel Brother’s Anti-Face-Recognition-Glasses combine this objective with fashion design, for example, but various semi-transparent masks or headgear with beamer devices also exist that have a similar function. (Holmes, 2019) In her video work How Not to be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational .MOV File , Hito Steyerl has specifically dealt with masking techniques. This work functions quasi as a tutorial video. It lies precisely at the analogue-digital border in its design and blends opposing aesthetics into a new whole. In her work, Steyerl engages with digital images as a whole, with their function and value in a digital, capitalist and globally networked system. The disclosure of the inherent properties of digital images (beyond their actual representation) is a recurring theme. (Steyerl, 2012)
The network-based works I know where your cat lives (Mundy, 2019) by Owen Mundy or „Please Rob Me“ (Borsboom, 2019) by Barry Borsboom introduce the themes of data protection and GPS localization. Both projects visualize publicly accessible photos or Twitter posts and then present them collectively on a map. As a result, attention is drawn to the fact that this content has not been provided by users with sufficient restrictions to access rights. These artistic works find their equivalent on questionable websites, which likewise bundle open content. At the very least, these pursue the goal of illegal use rather than any goal of raising awareness of the issue (see https://www.insecam.org/en/bycountry/RU/ for example).
In postdigital practice, Josephine Bosma emphasizes the aspect of the post-screen as an action or perspective. She sees a post-screen perspective as a necessary strategy for making essential aspects (of a work of art, of a social phenomenon or a phenomenon through a work of art) visible rather than remaining superficial.
In this section, I would like to talk primarily about interfaces realized via a screen. I would suggest the term “interface view” for this approach, whose objective is to achieve an artistic procedure that reveals the interface. This reflects the medial production process of the artwork’s content and therefore refers on the one hand to the manipulability and fiction of digitally mediated content and, on the other hand, heightens awareness of a general perception shaped by digital interfaces. Consequently, it also deals with the change in perception of the surface and the content and technical processes hidden behind it, as David Berry also writes:
“Here I am thinking not just of the surfaces created in and through the digital, but, moreover, of the kinds of logics that this inspires more broadly across society and culture.” (Berry, 2015)
The use of the artistic technique “interface view” is therefore postdigital, in the sense that it uses digital media, focuses on the media itself and thereby addresses its effects, connotations and implications. It is, therefore a view that includes digitality’s (negative) consequences in the use of digital content. These pieces are accordingly realized with an awareness of digital works and their social use. However, postdigital practice does not necessarily have to use digital means, but can also implement the manifestations of digitalization in an analogue setting, as will be shown in the following section.
Composite view and analogue discretization
The omnipresent permeation of the analogue world by the digital world leaves, as already presented, consequences in human perception and interaction. This also explicitly means a perception of the analogue world according to the standards of the digital world. In a series of light-based compositions, I try to bring this circumstance to a head and make it palpable using stroboscopic flashes. In this case, “interface view” means a representation of the physical stage space without video technology, but which nevertheless evokes the visual language of a computer interface and a digital representation.
At the discretization level, this aspect can be found in the visual arts as well as in art music. Gerhard Richter has found transference to the analogue world with his Richter Window in the Cologne Cathedral at the pixel level, and with the 11 Glass Panes at the temporal frame level. In both works, we experience the digital world’s rasterization in an explicitly non-computer-related context. In his series of works Amprofication , Maximilian Marcoll rasters already existing (classical) pieces by scanning them with a digital envelope in the concert context, in real-time, at millisecond speed, as atomic samples. (Berry, 2015)
Here, too, an analogue setting (the classical concert format) is looked at from a different digital perspective.
Ricardo Eizerik takes a comparable approach in his composition in steps , in that he transfers a vocal ensemble into an additive synthesizer or an analogue drum machine. (Eizirik, 2019)
In his series of works Between Me and Myself , Andreas Eduardo Frank uses light and projection to grid the stage space in an analogue way. (Frank, 2019)
Such visual rastering techniques can be seen in the contemporary dance works of Klaus Obermaier (e.g. Vivisector ) or Ula Sickle (e.g. Atomic 5.1 ).
Composite view examples
In my pieces Sensate Focus, Scanners, and Codec Error, I use short light pulses to spotlight musicians on a black stage for short periods of time. The performers consequently appear in a dark setting only for a moment, during which they usually perform an action. Thus, only short segments – i.e. samples – are ever taken out of a continuous whole and displayed. This process corresponds to a discretization of the analogue stage situation with analogue means. Even if the process itself is quasi non-digital, the representation of the figures onstage is very digital and technically artificial.
Although controlled by a digital computer, the process could theoretically also be realized with an analogue device. It is the look that has a digital quality. As a result, the musicians onstage are no longer perceived as people, but appear more like a video snippet, a GIF-loop or a film frame. A temporal reduction to a sample takes place, which then stands on its own and is temporally detached. This representation finds its counterpart in a digital editing program, in which video and sound elements can be placed, selected, arranged and transformed next to each other against a black background. The black box of the stage becomes the black box of a computer programme. Consequently, the view of the stage from above corresponds to the prospect of a digital arranging surface: therefore, I suggest the term “composite view“. In contrast to the “interface view“ the focus here is on the reduction of human musicians to a digital image and their placement in an empty (black) setting. The process hence includes the two steps of analogue discretization and the subsequent representation in a composite representation (“composite view”) [This presentation also deals with the digital representation of bodies (Chapter 6.2.4, 6.1.9 and 6.3.5) and hologram-like represention (Chapter 6.2.2)].
We take a computer interface as a gateway to a black box, as a self-contained surface. It offers the foreseen modes of interaction, thereby creating an affordance; but it is bound to a fixed GUI with clear user actions. The disclosure and fracturing of this logic can be effectively brought about by the method of digital error, with a glitch, as Hugh Manon also points out:
“A computer interface, by contrast, is immersive—we cannot help but misperceive skeuomorphic user interfaces such as buttons, drop-down menus and browser windows as bearing a real physicality. We do not expect two windows to become entangled or intertwined. When glitches manifest, they are a sudden phenomenological intrusion, a break in the order of logic. The shock comes because when we work with the machine we are contained by it. A glitch ruptures this immersive environment, undercutting the sovereignty of the digital by revealing its pervasiveness.” (Manon et al., 2011)
Digital error usage for this very purpose will be examined in the following section. How can the immersive, closed, opaque digital surface be broken through – and what characteristics can be revealed?
The digital error as a visibility tool
The concept of the digital error is integrally linked to the original definition of the postdigital and can be seen as an essential tool, enabling or even provoking a self-referential engagement with the medium and its technologies. In this text and my work, I like to understand the glitch aesthetic and the digital error primarily as tools that make technical surfaces, codes and conventions visible.
Almost without exception, we perceive digital images as analogue images – as a smooth, consistent surface and not as discrete digital parts. An error or a glitch disturbs the data behind a digital representation in such a way that the analogue simulation can no longer remain hidden. That which otherwise would have been passively received – such as a video feed, an online photo or a music recording – is now corrupted, digitally imprinted and distorted. Whether intentionally or accidentally, a disruption suddenly destroys the communication platforms upon which we depend as subjects of digital culture, and which we take for granted. (Manon et al., 2011)
An error can be seen as an “antidote to standardized systems.” (Ingold et al., 2008) In such cases, they represent a deviation from a system, directing attention to the system itself. In a technical context, this system can refer to aspects such as network connections, algorithmic computability or digital representation and storage. Since errors lead not only to complete system failures, the error can also show operative and intrinsic operating logic. (Nunes, 2011) The gateway to the human being is also directly influenced by the internal digital modes, manifesting itself in requests for action (“affordances” – see also Chapter 2.2.2) and limitations, as Mark Nunes also postulates:
“Errors can reveal distinct and overlapping aspects of the technologies that mediate our lives and the designers of those technologies. First, and perhaps most fundamentally, errors can reveal the affordances and constraints of technology that are often invisible to users. Through these affordances and constraints, technologies make it easier to do some things, rather than others, and either easier or more difficult to communicate certain messages. Errors can help reveal these hidden constraints and the power that technology imposes.” (Hill, 2001)
The glitch’s manifestation occurs at the interconnection of the analogue and digital. It can be argued (see above) that the glitch destroys the analogue appearance of digital content. The inclusion of the raw and erroneous in a clean digital representation could also be interpreted as analogue. But the manner of glitch is in itself completely digital and occurs in explicit awareness of the digital, as Hugh Manon states:
“Although it brings together analog and digital modes, glitch is a not at all a refusal of that binary. Glitch is very much a practice situated within digital culture, and with full knowledge of its difference from analog. Glitch is combinatory, but (self-evidently) not a blending or dissolution of the two signal types.” (Manon et al., 2011)
Furthermore, Nunes also describes the error as a corrective in society and the economy. It can be understood here both as an activistic, artistic corrective, which questions a controlled system. Paradoxically, however, the error function is also a component of system optimization and not automatically subversive and critical in every case:
“In effect, in the growing dominance of “the network” as social space, we are witnessing the transcendence of a social and cultural system that must suppress at all costs the failure to communicate. This system operates within a paradoxical moment of maximum flow and maximum control. Error, in effect, serves its purpose as a corrective—what keeps purpose on purpose and tasks on goal.” (Nunes, 2011)
Benjamin Hill then derives from this an explicit mandate for activists (and artists). Hill describes that the task now is to make technology and its properties visible, exposing the black box and revealing the intentions of the people who created the digital system:
“Scholars and activists must do more than contextualize and describe technology. They must first render invisible technologies visible.…These errors can reveal several important features of technologies connected to the power that it, and its designers, have over users. In particular, these examples can speak to the power of technological affordance constraints, technologies that act as intermediaries, and the technology that uses “black boxes” in explicit attempts to hide the technology in question. In all three cases, errors can also reveal the values of the technologies’ designers.” (Hill, 2001)
Analogue glitch art and surface error
The digital error, the glitch aesthetic and the interruption of a setting play a central role in the post-digital practice. Regarding this, I would like to present here two basic approaches in this field: One is the transfer of a digital error into an analogue (and thus postdigital) situation, the other is the use of the error as a compositional tool of interruption and for viewing behind the surface layer.
The postdigital use of the error first focused on the digital medium, revealing its structure, storage characteristics and nature. An interpretation of the postdigital perspective is, as described, also the application of digital operations and modes to the analogue world. An artistic approach that can be derived from this is the simulation of digital errors in a physical, non-digital context. This method could therefore also be called “post-post-digital“, as it detaches the digital medium’s self-reflection from itself, illustrating it in the analogue.
In my composition Codec Error musicians are lit up by flashes of light onstage. The musicians are illuminated from different directions with varying colours in very brief intervals. As a result, the light captures them from changing angles during the progression of a movement and with alternating colours. If, for example, the arm is moved quickly from top to bottom, the result may be that, in its uppermost position, the arm is illuminated red from behind, a few milliseconds later green from the left, and then blue from the right. As with frames in video editing and colour planes in image processing, the movement is broken down into its individual parts. Of course, this impression is basically familiar from stroboscopes – but not in the colour shift, the lighting angles and the millisecond timing. This effect analogously emulates video glitch processing by suggesting RGB frame offsets. This effect is actually a clearly technical one and inevitably bound to a screen and a video signal. It is, therefore, a visual language, which is normally communicated via a computer.
The transfer to an analogue stage situation makes this visual language now palpable in analogue and, in so doing, comments on the increasing presence of digital codes and aesthetics in our visual habits. This process can be understood as an intensification. Taken to the extreme is a trend in which representations and perception are increasingly influenced by digital languages. A circumstance we might otherwise experience unconsciously or unreflectively is made perceptible and experienceable. The intensity, urgency and aggression of this representation can also be understood as a reference to the vehement assertiveness of the digital in society.
The second basic use of the digital error in a post-digital practice is to be seen as a tool for interrupting, cutting and breaking through a surface. It is therefore also a function in terms of content, structure or form. Nevertheless, the error is always conveyed in a technical-medial way. So: there is no exclusively musical, theatrical or narrative break or error; but rather, a digital setting is always used and, with the help of digital platforms and tools, a content error always brought about.
The error leads to the termination of a program view or program interface. This means, for example, that a PowerPoint presentation breaks off and the system switches from the presentation view to the editing view. Here, the integrity of a presentation is suspended and sovereignty relinquished. A supposedly inviolable surface (and thus also assertion) becomes porous for the view of what is behind it. It is now shown that this content is also constructed and that it can be edited and changed. It also gives an insight into a less ordered, less clean version of what is shown, and has connotations of injury. The unintentional disclosure of content is initially associated with fear. A similar approach is used by pieces that quit and interrupt a coherent video projection, referring here to the interruption of a media setting established in a concert.
Another recurring element is the use of green screens and the sudden disclosure of the procedure, caused by errors. By definition, the green screen is intended to be hidden, and its appearance, or the artefacts of faulty colour-keying, are inevitably interpreted as a defect. The appearance of a green screen is a process visually connoted as an error, inadvertently revealing the production method and fiction of the scene. Thus, this process has something of a sense of “dis-illusionment” in that an illusion is removed. A view of an empty, virtual world is consequently opened up, in addition to showing the scene’s composite mode. The green screen room is the modern technical implementation of a “nothing“. Like the grey and white chequered background of an empty Photoshop document, it is the postdigitally visualized symbol of a “non-space“, a place where nothing is located. It is a place where people, objects and scenes can be collaged and put together at will. Along with the analogue “composite view”(Chapter 4.3.3), this is a representation using the actual digital means themselves.
I see the relevance of the digital error’s usage consequently in its ability to be used as a tool for disclosure [The German word “Sichtbarmachung”[making visible] is translated here, as elsewhere, to not only refer to visualisation but also to revelation of content]. - not (only) as a digital sound or video effect, but as a tool to illustrate the digital imprinting of visual habits in the analogue world and as an editing tool, to create a disclosure between two opposing worlds. These worlds are initially the analogue and digital, but in the next step, an entire subsequent series emerges of implicitly and explicitly contradictory pairings. I would now like to choose the paraphrases “virtuality“, “uncoupling” and “deception” as generic terms for these antagonists and discuss them in more detail in the following sections.
Virtuality and uncoupling
Until now we addressed the permeation of the digital and analogue in the postdigital context in various ways. Technology’s visibility and invisibility in the physical world was also explored, and, peripherally, the themes of disillusionment, reality and virtuality touched upon. These terms will now be discussed in detail within the postdigital context and in the approach of making visible and perceptible.
The previously discussed permeation of digital and analogue is not to be understood as equating or levelling their differences. It does not mean that analogue and digital are transformed into one – only that the interconnection increases. Figuratively speaking, one could talk about two levels which are brought together and from which we perceive or hide different aspects. In many cases, there are two coupled systems which are made to overlap in this fashion. This is done, for example, through interfaces, GPS coordinates, motion tracking, face tracking, “internet of things“, and computer-based tools. The further this (technical) development progresses, the more integral the linking and the accuracy of it should become. This overlapping then affects the aspects of virtuality and simulation under discussion.
I have introduced the visualization of digital content as a postdigital tool. This approach can be varied and specified in terms of the label’s virtuality, simulation and reality. The uncoupling of the analogue and technically mediated world can be understood as an (artistic) practice that separates the processes of overlapping and connecting again and consequently makes them tangible and criticisable.
In a technical development which seems to pursue a goal of increased coupling, the concept of uncoupling must also be understood within the already introduced context of error. The coupling’s breakdown fulfils the already presented criteria of a reflection of the underlying system.
Uncoupling of the tools
Using digital tools and forms of presentation, maximum uncoupling on several levels has become possible. Digital content can be freely linked or transferred to one another, gestures and actions can be combined with any causal outcomes and media results. Time and space can be bridged (at least more easily and comprehensively with the digital). This uncoupling – based on the calculability of all digital content – represents the basis for the increased occurrence of virtualization. The digital is quasi predestined for the virtual – for the possible, the alternative and the simulative. First, I would like to consider this aspect in relation to digital interfaces in general and in the musical context in particular. The musical context can be seen here as the use case of a generally valid circumstance in which progressive virtualisation can be observed via digital tools.
This uncoupling of the two levels is, however, not only of a technical nature but also representative of the content transported with it. As a result, a link between cause and effect establishes a logic – even if this logic is freely selectable. In this way, a truth is asserted and, at the same time, a setting established, naturally creating a mental connection (coupling) between an action (a signifier) and what it stands for according to this attribution (signifier). A structure is defined – an assignment; and this coupling’s randomness – and that it can be easily manipulated in the digital world – is then the object of uncoupling.
The uncoupling of these established settings accordingly takes place on two levels: technically and in content. Technical uncoupling means a dissolution (caused by errors) of the connectivity rules. Uncoupling in terms of content means that the established convention of the action character is abandoned and rewritten.
The successive distancing from the simulated performance mode becomes particularly tangible in its characteristics in the passage in which the singer takes a slow‑motion bow, like a marionette facing the audience. A dominant and powerful performance turns here into a strangely artificial passage. While once technology obeyed man, here man seems to become the tool of the digital. Speaking on the simulation levels: the simulation of an original hardcore performance moves away, bit by bit, and loses its connection to a real origin. At some point, it suffices itself and abandons the connection. I subsequently understand the contrasting of these perspectives in the piece as an active process of visualization: the demonstration of any digital link and the different modes of simulation. [ This reflection naturally also touches on the question of the authenticity of the performance and the established persona of the singer. This aspect will be discussed in more detail in Chapter 4.6.]
The comparison of physically experienceable – and thus perceived as “real” – interactions and communications with simulated, virtual content is a continuous theme of my work. Here the question arises as to what is “real” or “true” in this context, and which parts are “faked” or “simulated“. Against the background that digital technologies are allowing deception, manipulation and simulation to a new extent, this question is worth further attention.
Summary and virtual imperative
I have presented compositional tools as means of a postdigital change in perspective and have highlighted various facets of this approach. These approaches operate on the border between digital and analogue content and address their mutual influence. I have presented the disclosure of digital contents and techniques as essential techniques. Based on the thesis that digital content is becoming increasingly influential but also invisible, I interpret this approach as a critical tool. Analogous to the term “postdigital imperative” I also propose a “virtual imperative“. Based on the assumption that increasing virtualization – i.e. uncoupling – can be observed in digital contexts, this term should take omnipresence into account. The reflection of this circumstance will consequently become increasingly integral in medially orientated contemporary composition.
The core thesis can be summarized as being that our view of digital technologies and media in art and society has changed. This change in perspective can be represented by postdigital art, or by making hidden content visible through artistic means. In the concluding chapter, I would like to summarize once again the social and technical prerequisites, derive my artistic activity from them and present this in summary as an exploratory and critical artistic tool. Finally, the outlook section will discuss which future perspectives and changes thereof could be culturally significant and artistically necessary.
If one ascribes a decisive influence to digital technologies, the theory could be honed to the extent that postdigital reflection is not only a potential but even a necessity. Today, according to the idea of a “postdigital imperative“, it is no longer possible (and/or desirable) not to use contemporary media music’s representations and tools with regard to their postdigital implications. Electronic means should be used less for their own sake and more in the knowledge of their social, social and personal use. Here, contemporary music has the possibility to be compatible with relevant topics, without being degraded to accompanying music. Using the resources of multimedia composition, the implicit reflection of postdigital representations and modes is possible without having to resort primarily to programme texts and language use. Here, content can be implemented directly via the medium and made tangible to the senses.
When we look at the tools and forms of our postdigital era, we do not primarily see the technical implications, but rather the social ones. Behind any social movements lies the soul of the human being, which drives progress and, with it, both thrives and suffers. When we open up worlds, step out of them or dis-illusion. [The German word “Enttäuschung” has been translated here as elsewhere with “dis-illusion” to reflect that a “Täuschung” (Illusion) is being removed.] them, we can then learn through these processes. We meet our tools and the world we construct with them – and ourselves.
Outlook “With the eyes of the machine”
The postdigital attempts to describe the extent to which we see the world today with digital eyes. How much have our senses already been shaped by the digital, and how do we now look at our world? A subsequent question could then be: how does the digital see us? What constitutes the gaze of the digital in itself? Not the interfaces or graphic user screens, but a program’s analysis, evaluation and assessment of us and the analogue world. Interfaces, for example, are initially designed by people for people, even if the digital structures are already clearly recognizable there and implicit. However, the previously described characteristics of calculability of the digital, the discreet, the post-medial detached, already lead to influences which were not – in all cases – directly conceived by man. Here, the “essence” of the digital begins to manifest itself: it simply lies in its nature. The postdigital wants to recognize and name this “essence”: in other words, to develop an eye for it, to see (and perceive) in such a way that we are sensitized to it.
The next step would now be to adopt the machine’s view. How does an algorithm see the world, and how does a program recognize an image’s properties? How does a technical system make a decision? These questions initially have a technical core, as they may initially be research and implementation questions; but subsequently, it is much more than that. If we analyse how a program sees the world – especially if we have not deterministically programmed every aspect of the program – then we not only learn about the properties of the computer but also question our perception and compare it with the machine. Where are parallels and which are the differences? Where do approaches converge and where are they disparate? And what role does man play in a world view, from the machine’s perspective?
The spectrum of machine-specific perceptions ranges from simple programs to complex recognition algorithms and artificial intelligence. A simple sorting algorithm is not, in itself, a complex procedure, and is traceable at every step. However, if one applies this procedure to audio files, pixels in video frames, entire pictures or even people on a stage, one can already surmise the presence of a digitally inhumane procedure in these processes; we gain an inkling of processes that otherwise take place behind the user interface. Otherwise, this classification does not imply any mystification or elevation of the algorithm: it is no more than a series of structured commands. I find the spiritualization of technology to be a rather obstructive procedure; but to accept and perceive the differences between man and programme, in sight and action, is, again, instructive.
In the analogue world, these kinds of algorithms are already noticeable. [Especially when a complex system is created from a sum of rather simple parts (sorting, filing, administration, distance calculation, cost minimisation, …] They become particularly evident when there is a clearly visible gateway between the analogue and digital world. These gateways can be coordinated goods in a warehouse, guided streams of visitors in an airport, algorithmically coordinated people in the gig economy or digitally managed and rented flats. In these examples, we can perceive the analogue as an outgrowth of the digital. Increasingly, the digital is no longer an auxiliary tool that supports analogue processes. The analogue object or person can increasingly be perceived as a physical component of the program. In the interchangeability of people and objects with an algorithm, they are then, in their individuality, no longer the centre of attention. They are a necessary manifestation of the digital. [Of course, this system in this form was not created arbitrarily. It is, for example, in the form of the gig economy and other cases the culmination of (platform) capitalism. The turning away from individualization and at the same time the instrumentalization of people finds a sad climax here, which puts industrialization far in the shade].
Additionally, this condition once again places the central concept of the AD/DA converter centre stage. Technology will increasingly disappear further into the invisible, so the only relevant aspect, besides the programs themselves, will be the transducer from digital to analogue and vice versa. In purely physical terms, it will be equipment (in the form of cameras, sensors, scanners, etc.) that will remain. Metaphorically speaking, this is then also the elementary venue of the relationship between analogue and digital.
When the digital processes are less visible, then it may be less striking at first, but, if in doubt, even more worrying. This is, amongst other examples, the case when programs analyse data, images, people and coordinates. “Computer vision” – the extraction of an image’s information and properties – is a tangible example. The algorithmic evaluation of big data and data mining can reveal correlations that people would otherwise perhaps not find (and perhaps would not search for). Here, bizarre combinations can be revealed: but digestible information may also be statistically extracted from a series of irrelevant data. There are indeed programs which, based on photos shared in social media, can make statements about whether a person has depressive tendencies. By combining search and purchase behaviour, other programmes can make statements about whether a person wants to change jobs or is pregnant. The combinability, scope and recording possibilities of digital data lay the foundation for a categorically new form of analysis and machine vision.
In this context, the use of artificial intelligence (AI) represents a significant extension of the previously outlined points. If the program is only given framework conditions, according to which it then adapts a concrete implementation itself, we then observe processing and classification patterns which can differ fundamentally from human patterns or which are surprisingly convergent.
If the algorithms are not designed in detail by humans and conceived in a concrete process, we no longer specify the concrete processing but create an environment which is adaptive according to certain learning functions. Here, perhaps an even more machine-based view emerges; a process that expresses the digital even more strongly. In the context of AI, an input and an output layer are normally defined, connected by a middle layer capable of learning. This calculation layer is iteratively adapted, based on an error minimization of the system. The error describes the quality of the algorithm and is quasi the evolutionary pressure of the system. The system’s architecture, and often also the error function, are designed by humans and are, therefore, not a machine logic’s expression.
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