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Attractors: Notes on Aesthetics and Network Form

Brett Stalbaum

Contemporary evaluations of the aesthetic and ontology of network forms are too often sorted into categories which emphasize the incompatibility and opposition between assumed binaries that are instantiated once again, and then moreover, in spite of substantial positions to the contrary that, even if they do not prove satisfactory on their own strength as philosophical resolutions to the problems at hand (polemics are always possible), do nevertheless provide significant weight to questions about the original assumptions regarding contradictory opposites (which mark the bounds of possible aesthetic perception), in the first place. Two common examples of the tendency to perceive network forms via latent models are instantiated in the science vs art debate, and in the polemics surrounding virtual form as opposed traditional object making. Combined with contemporary misunderstandings regarding the nature of a network (which is often cast as spacio-temporal or hypertextual), and the entrance of artists working with network form as a medium or space for preformative agency, we find that sedimented assumptions regarding the ontology of art surrounding these polarities (art vs. science and 'real' vs virtual), have contributed generally to the misunderstanding of an unsorted field of very diverse activity.

It is this activity, sometimes called 'net.art', which we have as of yet rarely been able to treat with anything more than those comfortable though largely debunked romantic-modernist models of art, artists, audiences, art institutions, as well as the relationships existing between the four. None of my treatments of the more or less contemporary aesthetic theories presented here will be news to anyone within the field of analytical aesthetics, nor should they be, given that the intention of these notes is not to provide clear amendments or proposals within the bounds of that tradition, but simply to articulate that counters (or alternatives), to the aforementioned models both already exist and actually considerably pre-date the network art forms that have stimulated those models as the parameters of debate. I conclude these notes with a suggestion that complex processes involving the formation and decay of semiotic, institutional, productive and perceptual modes be adopted as a basis for the aesthetic analysis of net.art because it mirrors the operational mode of the networks which it would seek to evaluate.

Regarding the art vs science issue, much of the contemporary debate relative to net.art revolves around the very assumption that art and science are fundamentally contradictory spheres of endeavour. So the argument runs: since networks have resulted from trajectories of science and technology, art must by definition have some secondary relationship to network form. Such arguments often take the form of statements like, "Networks are a new medium that artists can now explore." Now whether this kind of thought is evaluated as excluding network forms from any status as art, for justifying them some subordinate status within the art world, for the foundation of a new movement in art based on the medium, or even for arguing some superior status for network form as art, (based on the supremacy of science to which art has finally subordinated itself), we can argue that it is the implementation of the false dichotomy in the first place that is generating the misconceptions. If it isn't simply adequate to conjure the ghost of Leonardo DaVinci to show that it is the dichotomy marking the parameters of the science vs art discourse that is at fault, let's undercut the topical question and ask why it is, based on active models of art ontology, that art and science are so often held apart from one another? The main underlying mythology still running in the system is that there is a clear division between the emotive and the cognitive that define the principle differences between art and science.

In a 1968 critique titled "The Activity of Aesthetic Experience", Nelson Goodman identifies and resolves this issue by undermining the "domineering dichotomy between the cognitive and the emotive", and theorizes that "this pretty effectively keeps us from seeing that in aesthetic experience the emotions function cognitively." Now, we should in retrospect lend to Goodman the support some fairly exactly contemporary theory about the closed structure of the nervous system and the then necessary expansion of the conception of cognition beyond analytic reasoning to the overall ontogenic structural drift of an organism (Maturana, Varela), but while this is a nice general confirmation of Goodman's narrower argument within aesthetics, it would only be necessary here if we were trying to flesh out the aesthetic experience of an individual cognitive unit; which was not Goodman's main mission. His endeavor was, (and it is mine here), to point out that it is the operative semiosis (though he would not have used explicitly semiotic terminology), within the larger system that dictates the cognitive outcome, (or at least that the outcome actually exists, more or less objectively, within a third-order structural coupling such as language or modes of perception). Therefore it holds that any aesthetic evaluation divided along the lines of the cognitive and the emotive is not plausible: the instantiation of science as opposed to art is without merit. Away with it go critiques based on methodological differences between the two supposed poles. For example, art that adheres to a rigorous set of scientific controls does not disqualify itself as art, anymore than a passionate scientist necessarily invalidates her study through strong feeling.

Goodman states that it is best to examine "the aesthetic relevance of the major characteristics of the several symbol processes involved in experience and to look for aspects or symptoms, rather than for a crisp criterion, of the aesthetic." These "symptoms" are suggested to be in conjunction with aesthetic experience. He states that these are not however necessary and sufficient conditions for anything like "aesthetic value," which by and large he seeks to undermine in general. He goes on to describe four symptoms, syntactic density, semantic density, syntactic repleteness, and an un-jargoned symptom that "distinguishes exemplificational from denotational systems." Of most interest here is the close relationship (or potential mappings), between what Goodman is doing in the essay, and thinking that was taking place contemporaneously with Goodman under the rubric of semiology. His notion of denotational and expressive elements map most obviously to the denotation/connotation pair, (and probably could suffer from the same errors of extreme dichotomy that denotation and connotation did up until the time that Roland Barthes described them as a continuum that is always ideological.) Goodman's explication of "Syntactic Density" maps very closely to syntagmatic analysis, and "Semantic Density" to paradigmatic analysis. Something quite interesting that Goodman brings to the table is his notion of "Syntactic Repleteness", which refers the relative implementation of semantic systems as opposed to diagrammatic or schematic systems; where greater "Syntactic Repleteness" means more syntagmatic repleteness as opposed to paradigmatic; or a way of making statements not about syntactic and semantic density in isolation from one another but rather as relative aesthetic symptoms according to the equation Syntactic Repleteness = Syntactic Density/Semantic Density. Such an exposition lends weight to my argument that net.aesthetics are relative to the distributed and always fluxuating systems of third-order structural coupling (systems of semiosis), which define a domain, such as the "art world", and further indicates that we should seek to evaluate the activity of network art forms; not only their visual surface. But even failing to do so, it clearly shows that continuing to pit art against science as an evaluative aesthetic tool is a fairly useless endeavour.

Little time will be spent on the polemics surrounding virtual form as opposed traditional object making in these notes, but it must be pointed out that, within the art world at a minimum, this is no longer a serious debate nor has it been for some time. Once again, the debate's historical resolution far precedes net.art, and it should further be pointed out that much like the DaVinci example in science vs art, no one should have to do more than unfurl the history of performance art (Italian Futurism or Dada will do), to resolve the matter within the context of working artists (if not aesthetiticians). In short, performance artworks and conceptual artworks have given us many objectless art examples for an extended time. Nevertheless, we can at least give one significant position from aesthetics that clarifies the proposition that artworks do not require an object, but rather that art "is constituted artistic in virtue of artistic theories, so that one use of theories, in addition to helping us discriminate art from the rest, consists in making it possible." Arthur Danto;1962.

Rather than attempt to generate just another argument or comparison of the relative merits of oppositional stances surrounding art and technology, it is important to attempt to understand the processes through which stratification in art discourse is generated in the first place. It is through such an analysis that many of the assumptions regarding the incompatibility of art with other fields of endeavor can be accounted for, and perhaps encouraged to self-modify to meet contemporary cultural phase states. The key concepts necessary to perform this analysis derive from Deleuze and Guttari, but have been nicely focused by Manuel De Landa in his recent book One Thousand Years of Non-Linear History. The fundamental idea is that there exist abstract processes which manifest themselves in similar ways within extremely different natural systems. This idea is what allows De Landa, for example, to usefully compare the non-linear organizational processes behind geological, biological, and linguistic histories.

Among the abstract machines that De Landa explicates are a sorting machine and a meshwork machine. Presented here in obscenely simplified form, sorting machines are stratifying forces that taxonomize, categorize, classify, and ultimately glue the results into stable structures. Examples that De Landa presents to demonstrate the results of sorting machines are sandstone, centralized bureaucracies, societal class structures, major languages such as English, and various other hierarchical structures. Meshworks are processes that organize around "autocatalytic attractors", or processes which are capable of integrating other processes in closed loops of mutually beneficial stimulation. Examples here are granite, chemical clocks, markets, and various kinds of networks. Importantly, hierarchies and meshworks are not viewed as contradictory processes: there can be hierarchies of meshworks or meshworks of hierarchies, all of which can take extremely complex forms. Nevertheless, tensions between these two forms of organization do exist, but it is viewed as a productive tension that stimulates necessary drift. Further, the history of the structures formed by these processes is viewed as the history of material interaction of those abstract processes. Under this analysis, it is possible to both account for the non-linear material forces that shape a discourse, and to potentially shepherd the meshwork of structures in such a way that novel spaces for artistic agency emerge. This includes the possibility of non-biological matter or raw data as participants in, or even as autonomous creators of, fine art. Returning now to the polemics taking place within art discourses regarding technology, it is critical to begin the task by intentionally not considering how hierarchical structures such as art institutions or traditional aesthetic theory contradicts or conflicts with emerging networks of independent artists and theorists, (or how heavily stratified disciplines such as contemporary scientific methods conflict with more meshwork-like processes of bricolage and tinkering in the arts). Instead, what is key to consider is how the spaces in which stratified structures, such as the art-institutional world, meet up and self-organize with meshworks of artists and theorists, (or how relatively fixed ideas about art or science interact with emerging meshworks consisting of elements of both). As autocatalytic art attractors form new mutually beneficial networks of heterogeneous elements, they constitute not a radical challenge to homogenizing art hierarchies, but instead function as producers of new materials to be sorted or meshed into increasingly novel forms that are compatible with the arts precisely because they emerge from adaptive non-linear processes. In short, this kind of analysis can do much to explain not only the contemporary emergence of new fine art media such as video and network, but perhaps even to predict future systems based art forms such as legal art, genetic engineering art, or corporation as art.


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