Some main concepts of digital arts

Sunday January 23rd, 2005.

Systemic art triangle 1 The information age 2 1. Hypermedia 4 a) Digital art is the simulated moment of an absent matter 4 b) The digital work is potentially visible 5 c) Digital work is multiple 5 2. Modelling 6 4. Generation 7 4. Performing 10 e) Digital art is a game 14 f) The aesthetics of digital art is an aesthetics of science 14 6. Memorizing 14 a) Fixed digital work is like any other work of art 15 b) Digital art has no value 15 c) Flow 16 d) Digital art plays with life and death 16

Some Main Concepts of Digital Art

Jean-Pierre Balpe

Systemic art triangle

From a certain point of view, all works of art are specific. But if that were unvaryingly the case, there would be no other ideas about art than that which obliges us to admit of its unity and incommunicable aspect. This is because all art is at the same time -- in a unique movement -- an expression of a context that allows itself to be. This visible contradiction proceeds from the fact that all works of art represent the objective moment of a dynamic system, the peculiar representation in a definite context of the interactions of all the variables that contribute to its being: the form is the content of the tensions that appear in the evolution of the system, an unstable stability. The same and the different. That is why art -- following Adorno in his Aesthetic Theory -- may not be thought of in terms of communication simply because it has nothing to say, and can never deliver messages: a dynamic space may only be defined from the perspective of an inner observer bound to that space, not from its outside. In a real sense, art is in-formation, an internal construction of information free of all other forms of finality: it is in and of itself a homogeneous system of signs.

Even though this is not the place to develop this theme further, taking it into consideration is nonetheless essential to an understanding of the historical changes to the idea of a work of art. Art always participates, in the same manner and without any separation, in the subjective, the objective, and in the cultural fields with regard to the totality of instances through which, at a given moment, all these components appear. This cluster of interactions define what may be called -- in a somewhat metaphorical and simplistic way -- the “systemic art triangle”

Figure 1. The systemic art triangle

The artist shapes the balance of the tensions which he strives to make objective. If there is some rationality in the work of art, it is in the conscious thinking of these tensions: that rationality is internal to a work whose greatest purpose is to impose itself not as representation but rather as the invention of a specific system of signs -- a language sui generis -- adequate to the moment, made apparent in this manner, of a complex environment. Maybe this is why so many aesthetic approaches are not sufficiently convincing because they do not analyse adequately all the consequences of such a system.

The information age

The age of information may be defined by different displacements and innovations which simultaneously affect several variables of this systemic triangle. Thus we have technical innovations, but also social transformations and symbolic changes, all of which affect the others in varying ways. It is not surprising that art, a system of information with no pragmatic purpose, will be interrogated, in its most fundamental concepts, by the setting up of a culture in which information and communication represent the first industrial materials. Such is the context in which the mutations of contemporary artistic creation, in its search to achieve an adequate mastery of the tensions which try to dominate it, have to be understood. The age of information is the age of communication systems which define the technical treatment of information and also of communication. It is distinguished therefore, by what may be called a general marketable form of communication. All of its numerous characteristics may be classified according to different types of questions sufficiently representative to display the principal axes of the main question. The first of these characteristics, the one which lays the foundation of the information age, is of a techno-symbolical nature.  At the symbolic level, it consists of taking into account the fact that all the information classes, including the most complex, may be represented by a hierarchy of N-articulations of which the most elementary is based on the single binary opposition 0--1. This symbolic system is the simplest, therefore the most abstract, ever invented.  At the technical level, it consists of the invention of the electronics, and of all the others things which originated in parallel with it, which allow, in a more and more efficient and quicker way, the treatment of digital data.

Art of the information age betrays its foundations

So, art is provoked on its own ground: as the permanent site of the invention of non-pragmatical information systems, it is challenged, as never before in its history, by the pragmatic application of abstract information systems with no primary links to any specific reality. Artistic creation can only try to invest this space which traditionally was its own space. But in this attempt it may be deprived of its soul and lose its justification. To put it differently, contemporary art, even if it has always been concerned with techniques to distinguish certain elements for its own purposes, now faces a specific technique the aspects of which can not be isolated but have to be dealt with as a whole. Indeed, the field of digital art is completely technical and, in some aspects of its algorithmic approach -- as Pierre LÈvy has shown -- it seems to emulate an artistic methodology. A digital image, for instance, is not simply a new technique of creating images, but a completely new image. It propels art towards a new conceptualisation of the notion of image itself. The French producer Michel Jaffrennou, who directed the movie Peter and the Wolf in digital images and with whom I collaborated on our generative opera Blue Beard, says that ìin the digital image every pixel is visibleî. Thus he stresses that in those kind of images, at the level of the visible, the presence of the digital is very strong, and modifies profoundly all modes of perception: “this is why the visibility of the image becomes a legibility” (Deleuze in Pourparlers). And what is legible in the digital image is the entirety of the technical layers of which it is made. This interaction of the visible and the legible, among various other constraints, is what the contemporary artist has to ponder in his work. Thus it is that all of the first attempts to create images using new technologies as a simple tool have been artistic failures. There is no middle way: either art poses the absolute questions associated with digital imaging or the digital image remains nothing but a simple fabrication technique for the cultural market, i.e., a reduction of art by means of commercial vulgarisation. The difficulty of such an exercise in definition is therefore that the concepts which describe digital art should not be isolated. Each of them is strongly linked to all the others and it is upon this enmeshment that comprehension and extension depend. Digital art must indeed confront all aspects of the information system, with the aim of objectifying it outside of its peculiar field according to those principles which make art legitimate. Art in the information age betrays its foundations: the most symbolic replication of this would be without doubt this strange and deceptive Mˆbius band that represents the drawing hands of M. C. Escher, and in which, in an unending loop, the drawing creates itself.

Figure 2: Mains se Dessinant (Maurice Cornelis Escher, 1948)

In this sense, all digital artistic attempts are global in that they enlist for their own purposes simultaneously and inseparably all the concepts emerging from the digitalisation of information: putting an image on the web has an artistic meaning if, and only if, the setting of that particular image responds to all the symbolic constraints of the net. Hence, Reynald Drouhin, a young French artist, grabs sounds, pictures, texts, videos from the net to create his own work --\alteraction -- or, in an other way, Fred Forest, an artist who works on what he calls the art of communication, who sold by auction in 1997 the access code to a digital image. The buyer of this code possesses this work as if it were a real one and makes what he wants of it. Thus the image is no longer an image but becomes a demonstration of artistic changes in the concept of the net. In order to see the consequences of that particular action in the artistic field, we can mention that the company which bought the code, due to the publicity it was awarded on different television channels, could enjoy an eighty-fold increase on its original investment. Without its inscription inside the globality of such an action, digital images on the net are only pictures and do not question the net from the systemic rules of art point of view. A hypertextual approach based on numerous links would be a more convenient way of presenting these concepts. Different attempts in this direction do exist, for instance the CD-ROM entitled Actuality of the virtual published in 1996 by the National Museum of Modern Art at the Centre of Industrial Creation at the Georges Pompidou Centre in Paris and also on various websites such as Douglas Edric Stanley’s Instruments and shapes of the interactivity ( But a linear presentation, with a deductive approach, does not really isolate each concept within its own territory. Fundamentally, they are systemic concepts which means that each of them is made of classes of strongly linked sub-concepts. Digital art is an art of technique What distinguishes digital art is firstly the exposure to a technical treatment. Hence it seems fitting to analyse it through its instrumentation. All the concepts of digital art can thus be assembled, at a primary level, into six classes of operations: hypermediatisation, conceptualisation, generation, performance, experimentation and memorization. Each of these classes includes some secondary concepts, some of which interact in other operations.

1. Hypermedia

a) Digital art is the simulated moment of an absent matter Because digitalisation -- a symbolical treatment -- is at the heart of digital art, this art originates in a rupture: it is an art without matter. That doesn’t mean that in its external manifestations it is realized without the participation of matter. Indeed it is recorded on different materials and, to become visible, has to be inscribed on the substance of different spaces -- screens, environments, volumes, and so on. Above all, the lack of matter in digital art shows that, by nature, all its productions have to be thought through on the basis of a pragmatic connection to matter. In that sense, digital art takes on form only through simulacra: digital art is the simulated moment of an absent matter. This situation puts it in a paradoxical position not unlike the position of the theatre or opera: as a published manuscript, a play doesn’t differ from the rest of literature, it is only a potential play which has no meaning before the various productions and performances make of it something always new. A written play is the prototype of the performed play. In the same way, a generative novel exists only by and through the displaying apparatus which shows it. So, according to its location of display, it can assume different appearances: public exhibitions, individual readings, or performances. To give a concrete example, my generator Three Mythologies and one blind poet, actually exists in three different forms: a performing one for the IRCAM in 1997; a private one on micro-computer for individual readings; and a public one on the net at the website of our university. Each of these versions presents really different characteristics. However, the poetical generator is exactly the same and none of the elements of its program have been changed.

b) The digital work is potentially visible The digital work has a potential visibility as Pierre LÈvy says, it is ìa numerical reservation of sensorial and informational virtualities which only actualize in interaction with human beings.î (Cyberculture, p. 173). Thus, digital work never depends on its visibility which can take different forms. Its visibility is only a surface, like a skin under which the spectator has no knowledge of what really exists, exactly in the way a kind of separation takes place between the actor’s performance and the script of the play.

c) Digital work is multiple The aspect of digital work that can be called hypermediatisation is the work as potentially multiple, virtual, and therefore out-of-place. Hence, not being assigned to any specific location, it can, in all the locations to which it is potentially allocated, accept numerical information and permeate all of them. Also, for the first time in the history of human creativity, because its manifestation is only a surface visibility, a work can, through the interlinkages of the Internet, exhibit itself, without any loss, at all points on our planet. While being a distinct and solitary piece of work, it can also exhibit itself differently depending on each of the places where it is displayed. That situation questions the notion of culture itself, and, therefore, the notions of universality and totality.

d) A digital work has the capacity to be ubiquitous The digital work has the capacity to be ubiquitous. Moreover, since all such works present themselves simultaneously, without erosion, in every corner of the universe, their manifestations have therefore the capacity to create an event for the whole human community of which they unceasingly reorganise the landscape of significations. They participate in the shape of the rhizome: digital work can spread and reproduce itself by diffusion through all the nodes to which it has access. It is not surprising that the net was the natural space to direct and expand digital works. Theoretically, the net even has the capacity of being one unique large work of art. For the same reasons, the aspect of its access to visibility depends only on local and temporal decisions from one spectator or one specific place. The separation of text-picture-sound-music becomes theoretical. The same program can be the origin of completely different or mixed surface effects.

e) A digital work evokes multiple sensorial potentialities Thus, hypermedia works out the old dream of a total art: it unifies what was previously separate. For instance, in the same way as opera tries to reach the goal of a total work of art by means of a simultaneous presentation in the same location, for the same purpose, of heterogeneous elements, the digital work always evokes, in the same place, the potentialities of multiple sensorial events. But, contrary to opera, a hypermedia work evokes them from a unique management centre: it is no more a synchronously co-ordinated presentation, but a merging and inter-operativity. In the hypermedia, sound is, in a circular way, a part of the text as the text is a part of the pictureÖ More precisely even, because these varying sensorial manifestations are nothing but the various codifications of digital data, a sound -- parodying Gertude Stein -- is a text is a picture is a piece of music is a movement is an image is a sound is a picture is a... and -- maybe soon -- a smell as well.

Figure 3. Fusions sensorielles

In our digital opera Blue Beard, for instance, music, text and scenarios are not the conjunction of three different artistic wills brought together by this particular foreman who happens to be the director, but rather the synchronous production of three indivisible generators, one a text-generator, one a scene-generator and one a music-generator, all conducted by the same program and by the same intentions. Of course, such an approach can not transpire without impacting on the very definitions of these media and on their modalities of reception: what becomes of a text if it is also pictures and music; what is stage-craft, and so on?Ö All these queries are today at the heart of the work of many digital art artists. Nowadays works appear which, as soon as they are conceived, represent the result of close collaborations.

2. Modelling

a) Modelling founds digital art How, indeed, in a system which is essentially based on flows of information, may an object be conceived which has no shape or which, more exactly, may take all the possible shapes. An object the shape of which is only symbolic. Digital art wants what has never been but at the same time all that it was before it. It has to construct the appearances of what, at one time, was.

b) Digital pictures play with their appearance The notion of matter is a good example of that problematic: how digital art, immaterial by nature, may represent the matter, or how a digital picture may objectify itself without becoming manifest in matter? The matter of the digital image is a theoretical matter. On the other hand, however, a cubist picture needs matter so much that it wants to incorporate real pieces of it. But the digital artist knows, by definition, that he can only play with appearances. The substance of digital art is dual-layered. The first layer is made by its creator who has to accomplish a theoretical conception; the next is by the reader who faces illusions of matter which display themselves and which he cannot read except through the conventions of acceptance or rejection. The digital picture always tests the co-operative will of its reader, the prime confidence that the spectator gives to all messages. Art is mimesis: from the conscience of imitation, the artist has of necessity to achieve the reasoned construction of the representation, i.e., to translate it into concepts.

c) Digital matter is concept-matter So, all digital matter sets up the concepts which found it: it is the constructed memory of repetition and differentiation of all the various forms of matter invoked. Even with ordinary scanning, the final picture will have passed through numerical filters which change it -- not to speak of the parameters applied by its maker. Digital matter is an ever-stronger image. Thus it is a critical substance, something like thought-matter. All previously known forms of matter are concentrated in it. This matter is both deeper and more idealistic. Digital matter is concept-matter.

d) A digital image is more than a picture. Digital art is an art-concept Digital art is an art-concept, not a conceptual art which thinks itself through the discourse which generates it, but an art built on the conceptual analysis of the systems of signs which become its object. This doesn’t mean that art doesn’t think itself through, but that digital art, refusing all non-formal approaches, in its thinking-through of it self-construction, leaves no room for strangeness.

e) Digital art is a modelling art Digital art is an art of the model, in the mathematical sense of the word. To become manifest, it has to conceive before hand of a formal abstraction. All its possibilities will then follow. Such is the meaning of the virtual: a spring of possible objectifying actions, an endless principle of actualisations, all of them written into the model. Yet, the great difference which separates this notion from its traditional philosophical meaning is that the model is not related to ideas but is formal, calculable, operative. This model has to be described in formal languages external to its proper object. This principle attends to the temptation of infinite regression: a model may always be taken as a concept for another model on a higher level. Two virtual universes may remain unknown to each other unless a model belonging to a higher level defines their connections. The map is never the territory, the model doesn’t exhaust the object it is modelling. This is exemplified by the Mechanical Models of Claude Cadoz and Jamel Nouiri: almost perfect engines except that they never will be complete -- unless they make themselves into real engines, but that would be to surrender their numerical purpose. Thus it is that digital art rests always on the selection of operations. If it naturally aims at simulation, it runs also the risk of becoming a simulacrum, the inversion of the idea of the model itself. To build a model is to conceive of the concepts useful for a pragmatic representation of a single world, which involves -- unavoidably -- distancing oneself from the concrete realities of that world. The worlds of digital art may be nothing more than abstractions of worlds in that their creator doesn’t create the outcome of the actualising process, but only the models underlying it. So in the models of the digital world, it is this creator who, because he translates his ideas of one world, models in part himself. He has to be able to define, in a technical manner, how he conceives of his art, the resources he needs to do so, the place he occupies and his relations with the different modes of display. In spite, sometimes, of the appearances of identities in the end results, there is a fundamental difference between the extraction of elements of concrete music -- or the contemporary practice of sampling in the field of techno-music -- whereby the composer takes some sensitive fragments of music which he mounts to create his own work, and, on the other hand, electro-acoustical music, where sounds are defined only by groups of parameters open to different calculations.

4. Generation

a) Digital art aims at repetition Model and mould have the same etymological origin: they are both the embodiment of concepts of objects intended for mass production. If, as Gilles Deleuze suggests, ìrepetition originates from elements which are really distinct and which, however, have strictly the same conceptî (DiffÈrence et rÈpÈtition, p. 26), digital art aims at repetition. But, that type of repetition is of the order of a concept, not of a surface. What is implicated here is the distance between concepts and surfaces. The creator who originates a concept of work can not master all the parameters which will make the work itself. He works on an idea of a work, but a work he does not want to accomplish directly because what interests him, are the relations to his concepts. The representations of digital art require an unfixed state, otherwise they are only weak imitations of works, simple records of objects. And the fact that the reproductions of a model can be completely forecasted conflicts with the necessity of permanent changes. Without this possibility, without a paradoxical amount of randomness, digital art has no real meaning. A permanent and fixed digital work like a seriography or a monotype is in contradiction with the matter that it shapes: this includes partly the time, partly the space, and partly the system of signs itself. In that sense, what is the most productive is not the repetition of the same, but this one exemplar of the very same which, in the shadows of reminders of identity, exhibits inequality.

b) Digital art plays the same and the different It is through the dynamic variations of the same and the different that digital art acts on the minds of the people who perceive it. In models of the digital, temporality and randomness have a very important place. Randomness, because it is the opposite of formal modelling, is possibly the most obvious manifestation of the simulacrum generated by the model. That being the case, the problem of reproduction does not impose itself any longer, because each moment of the production is, by itself, a unique re-production. There can not be copies. The copies of the numerical world are copies of the same under the aspect of the different. What the spectator sees, is the rhythm, the semantics of the same and the different. From its conception, the work is thought of as an open class, a genus, of copies of which each is yet an original. The works of Maurice Beanyoun -- Is god flat?, Is the devil curved?, or The tunnel under the Atlantic -- for instance, are of that kind. The spectator is placed in position of infinite repetitions of events and each micro-event is always different. Moreover, at a certain level, these three works are identical -- they allow one to dig into the cultural matter -- and are deeply different because it is the relation to that cultural matter which, on each new occasion, is set in a new action. That necessity of variation is best exemplified in the notion of generation: a generative work is a work which, every time, re-produces itself identically and, every time, at the level of its materialisation, is displayed in an original manner. The numerous creations of virtual worlds are of that kind. A virtual world is a world in which simulating the accidents of life has to be able to generate new situations depending on the unforeseen events it generates itself. The simulations of artificial lives -- although based on very different algorithmic approaches -- are also of that sort. They create works which evolve and modify themselves without any other intervention by their creator than the conception of the model which generates them. The numerous Genetic Images of Karl Sims (Particle Dreams, Genetic Images, Primordial Dance, Panspermia, and so on) or the installation Mutation of Yichiro Kawaguchi are rather good examples of those kind of works.

Figure 4. Primordial Dance (Karl Sims, 1991)

Figure 5. Mutation (Yichiro Kawaguchi, 1992)

All these works are generative in the sense that their variations are infinite. It is completely impossible for a result to be the same twice over. The generativity is defined as the process of materialization and achievement of incomplete elements of different levels corresponding to a definite conceptual description and driven by a given central model. The generativity asks, in a radical way, the question of the author, or, more exactly, of the relationships between the author and his work, and between the work and its reading because, in most traditions, the work is always read through the personality of the author himself. A generative novel, for instance, is a novel the written pages of which exist nowhere before the precise moment of their being displayed on a screen, a screen which, moreover, can be of different types: a collective screen versus an individual screen, an isolated screen versus a screen on a net, and so onÖ The material that the writer moulds is made up of a vocabulary, rhetorical rules, syntactical rules, and the more or less complex representations of universes. All this builds the model of the novel to write. The written pages are strictly dependant on that material. However, the writer can not foresee them in their final displayed shape. He knows approximately what can be foreseen, he knows that they can describe such and such an event, speak of such and such a character, but he can not in any way say what will be their exact content. Out of all reading, the generative novel can produce texts infinitely by itself or, conversely, produce pages only in response to a specific demand. Depending on various strategies which are part of the true conception of the work, its pages can be kept or destroyed.

Figure 6. One page from An unfinished debate (Balpe, 1995)

An unfinite debate, for instance, is programmed to destroy itself as soon as it has written three hundred thousand pages. The readings of these pages vary a great deal from one reader to another depending on the context in which a particular reader has come into contact with the work and especially depending on the moment of that contact: it is completely impossible, even on the net -- except if they are together at the same time and in the same place, in front of the same screen -- for two readers to read the same page of the novel. A reader can never, unless he has the possibility of recording it, read the same page twice. Two readers never read the same novel. While reading a common work, each reader is the reader of an unique work.

c) The last word belongs to digital work With respect to the same story there are as many different views as there are readers. In another of my generative novels, ROMANS (Roman) -- NOVELS (Novel) --, four generators exchangetheir stock of information and, by means of the transversal readings they allow for, create new novels from characters that the writer had nor foreseen or, rather, programmed. The author exists. Without him, ROMANS (Roman) would not be possible, and it is really the author who -- according to Pierre LÈvy -- defines an horizon of meanings for the work. However, what does change, is the relation between the author and the work. Not because in the classical conditions of creation, hazard never had anything to say, but because until now -- as shown by the surrealistic strategies of choice -- the author always had the last word. In digital works of art, the last word belongs always to the work because, when its manifestations are put into action, the author, unless he changes the model, occupies the position of a reader who has no way of influencing the end result. What he perceives then, is something like the objectification of the ideal purpose of his work.

d) Digital work is work-in-process A work-in-process is an artwork which integrates time and context as fundamental parts of its artistic expression. In contrast to the fractal conception of the work of art in which structure is the most emblematic representation and the conception of an artistic shape as deterministic repetition of strongly assembled fixed elements, a digital work of art substitutes chaos in its physical meaning. This means that the constant possibility of local divergencies which make the final result of this complex process are completely unforeseeable.

e) A digital work of art asserts the temptation of infinity A digital work of art asserts the temptation of infinity: its process would never have to endÖ As for lifeÖ

4. Performing

a) The digital artist shapes worlds It may be that this demiurgical claim underlies all digital works of art: to simulate the life processes. Avoiding religious vocabulary, Pierre LÈvy speaks of worlds engineers. The artist creating digital art formalises worlds. Not because his imagination is different from others, or is more abstract, but because he creates possibilities of interactions in different systems which sometimes seem to be self-driven. If life is also essentially information and if digital art is information about information, is this so surprising?

b) Digital art takes on the risk of the event It may be the case that, more than the temptation to create life, what digital art wants to conceptualise is primarily game-playing and risk. Fascination of real time: digital art is an art which takes on the risk of events. It is like dripping, or some other uses of lyrical abstraction, but with really different purposes inside the systemic art triangle. As for television, the work occurs directly and the spectator attends to that occurring. But this real time is the one of reception, not the electronic one of physical processes.

c) Digital art is spectacular This real time is that which the spectator can seize but is not the true speed of material engine running: the reality of real time is itself part of the scenery. The digital work leads to a perpetual motion in which texts, music, and images, between simulacrum and simulation, always rebuild themselves. Above all, digital art is spectacular.

d) Digital work has a talent for ubiquity Because the digital art can be brought into being in many differing places, under different and simultaneous modes of distance and nearness, it is a show without a stage. Jump cut/Faust -- a show produced by Marianne Weems from the US Builders Association -- is a good example of that. On the same stage, but with multiple screens and various kinds of applications, the show bursts into changing scenes, each with divergent modes of reading, obliging the spectator to perform a constant zapping. So the spectator always implicates that centrality of point of view which, until today, defines the reading of works. Here, the centre is everywhere. On the net, the stage is the whole world. This assertion is not a metaphor because today, the same work can be simultaneously displayed in different forms on all the screens of the earth. A digital screen is nothing else than the visible skin of an infinity of other screens; the digital work has, by nature, the power of ubiquity. In a way, it tends to surround its spectator, to immerse him in a creative universality where ìthe observer is himself a part of the simulacrumî (Deleuze, Difference and repetition). The degree of attention being proportional to the degree of immersion, the more the spectator is inside the work, the more he takes care of it. The Internet, for instance, is a communicative network from all to all; every single person can alternatively play all the parts. The large number of websites manifesting creativity shows what is happening: creation and reading tend to converge, maybe even to merge. To produce a digital artwork obliges to ask this question: how may the work build and integrate its spectator?

e) Digital work overflows the world Such are the fundamental questions of interaction and interactivity. Above all, the digital work is an entity of mathematical variables. In this sense, it is open to all other homogeneous mathematical variables. This is why two works can interact. It is enough that some of these variables correspond. Their interactivity builds a completely new work. In Three mythologies and one blind poet, for instance, the show only depended on the possibility of communication, on a coherent semantics, such as the choice of common parameters and their running level, of the music generator modelled by Jacopo Baboni-Schilingi and my own generator of poems. As for Blue Beard, the gathering together of the three generators -- music by Alexander Raskatov, scenery by Michel Jaffrennou, and text -- is not much more complex. It is enough to know at which level and at which time these three generators will exchange information on their respective states and the kinds of parameters that will be used to do so. Indeed, that way of working changes the traditional form of co-operation between the creators. But what is more interesting is that the digital work allows such a very large universe of collaborative extensions which permits the integration -- as a true part of itself -- of some of the formal parameters of its contexts. Built on models, it is available for exchange. Many works can use their environment in this way as part of the work itself: light, temperature, noises, presence of the spectator, live cameras, and so on. The choice only depends on the intention and on the imagination of its creator. In Three mythologies and one blind poet, the Midi instruments, played by musicians, were a part of the interaction: when its interpreters were playing the work, the digital work was playing its interpreters.

f) Digital work risks interaction Digital work can also ignore its contexts, and live its life alone. But, in a certain sense, it would miss one of its principal aims, i.e., to simulate risk and game-playing. It would be reduced to any other performing approach. The object of interaction is therefore of prime importance.

g) Digital work builds its spectator For the same reasons, the digital work has the capacity to build a theoretical spectator, that is, a spectator who is part of itself. It is only a matter of parameters. It is enough to put among the variables of its model a model for a spectator. Of course, the part of the spectator, due to its affect on perspective or on scenery for instance, has always been taken into account in the artistic creation. But here, to model a spectator is not a theoretical matter, it is a formal, concrete one. That means that the presence of the spectator would be integrated into the mathematical model of the work through real parameters. Critics have often asked me why my generative novels are not interactive. Good questionÖ Because they are. They are interactive in two very precise ways. First, the generator never writes a page without a clear request: the spectator is inside the model as a starting factor and determines his own reading rhythm. These generators are interactive in a finite sense. For instance in my detective novel Pray for murder, the reader can select the moment of the action at which he wants to make his choice. But he does so as a blind man. Indeed, he doesn’t know the novel structure and can choose between one and ten alternatives, which are completely arbitrary. He can choose the beginning , the middle, or the end of that novel, but as the generator generates the story second by second and from a great number of points of view, even that power is illusional. The interactivity is always disappointing. The generator plays with the spectator who is a part of its parameters. That is, of course, contrary to the ordinary meaning of interactivity. For most critics, indeed, interactivity is the possibility the spectator has to participate in the creation of the work itself. But nothing could be more untrue. Interactivity is like a cat and mouse game in which the author, playing with his spectator, assumes an absolute right to mock him. The interactive spectator is not outside the work but, inside, as an element of the model, exactly as any other integral component, therefore the work thinks and builds him too. All other modes of interactivity are an alibi because they let the spectator believe that he has some power over that work when, in fact, he only has the power given him by the creator of the model. Even virtual reality is a played reality. If the industrial simulators -- flight simulators, driving simulators, and so on -- aim to give to their users a maximum mastery of the processes, it is because they don’t have the slightest artistic will. In cases like these, the author disappears and surrenders his place to an objective relation only. Simulation is a matter of and for engineers. Their problems are never inside the systemic art triangle.

5. Experimentation

The principal questions are then: what is taking place in this digital art which changes all the usual relations between the artwork and its uses, and why these changes? These questions open up onto two other sorts of problems: one, the link between the work and its reader; and two, the links between the work and the socio-economic situation.

a) Digital art is always changing With regard to the first kind of issues, the answer which is generally given is the open work, the reference to which is Umberto Eco’s book. But for Umberto Eco, the opening of the work proceeds from an interpretation, never from a modification of the work itself. In the open-work approach, the work itself is fixed and only its possible readings are open. As for the digital work of art, it is not only unstable, but it also accepts -- is even made for -- constant changes. So there is a strong temptation to believe that between the changes in and to the work and its reading there is an other relation. However, digital art is not only more open than non-digital artwork, but, by dint of its constant movableness, it does not really lend itself to hermeneutics. To interpret digital artwork, the reader has indeed to access not only its surface but what underpins it, its mathematical model. An open work would be one in which the reader could introduce personal parameters into the creator’s model. This is impossible. Interactivity never leads to a deep modification of the work, it only allows a choice between the visible and authorized indeterminations of the model. If the steps of a dancer change the music, if the movements of the viewers change the projections of an installation, it is only because the model of the work includes the steps of that dancer in its parameters, because the installation includes the movements already and because, at this level, the author, while determining the boundaries, has decided to leave a space for choices. It is theoretically impossible to give an example of a model which can change itself through the unforeseen choices of an undetermined interactor. The reader never becomes an author and there is no collective creation of the work. When this type of interaction does happen, as in collective writing, the approach is totally different and the numerical aspect has no specific part. Most of the time the purpose is only to give to a group of authors -- for instance on the net -- an adequate writing tool. This defines none of the aspects of digital art.

b) The hermeneutics of digital art is at a technical level The hermeneutical attitude is also difficult because hermeneutics implies debates, i.e. a fixed element around which the debate can revolve. In digital art, the only fixed corpus is generally inaccessible to the spectator model. It is as if, in discussing the meanings of a Faulkner novel, the readers had to debate, not the text of the novels because no reader has read the same, but his work notes. The hermeneutics of digital artworks only has its place at the technical level.

c) Digital art is a work of repetitions On the other hand, digital art is a work of repetition. That doesn’t mean that it repeats itself, but that, through the returns of the same, it is open to the building of the same and the different: ìIf repetition does exist,î said Deleuze, ìit expresses at the same time one singularity against the generality, one universality against the peculiarity, one remarkability against the ordinary, one instantaneousness against the variation, one eternity against the permanence. In all respects, repetition is transgression.î (DiffÈrence et rÈpÈtition, p. 9).

d) Digital art invites experimentation So, in its returns, its differences and its repetitions, digital art invites experimentation. Not the experience as defined by John Dewey, which is a subjective and global approach -- but experimentation, which means the capacity of doing, from the observation of repetition, a selective test which enhances liberty. If the digital works asks its spectator to act on it, that spectator should not develop the impression that he has the power, that he is the authority, that he is the author in place of the author. Because the only possibility to deeply understand the aesthetic system of that work, to perceive how it works and, in that particular case, to comprehend how it builds itself, is through the variations made by repetitions on the surface of the work. Therefore, what it means, the possibilities it opens up to, the way it changes the relations inside the artwork itself and between itself and the world are perceivable only as traces on a changing surface. Some current forms of art, like pop art or, in some of its aspects, new realism, may have created a similar impression -- the recovery aspect of some of the works of Rauschenberg, the provocations of John Cage, the accumulations of Arman, for instance, while erasing their techniques let their spectators believe that they would be ìable to do the same thingî -- but their foundations are quite different. Re-introducing a visible technique -- something like the touch of Brueghel or CÈzanne -- digital art does not want to open up to a ridiculous illusion of practice, it never instructs its spectator to take the part of creator, but, by advancing the experimentation, it invites him to try to understand from the inside the conceptual steps followed by the author.

e) Digital art is a game In that sense, digital art is as a game. A true player is somebody who assimilates the rules, but is not the one who conceives new games. He knows the rules so well that they become part of himself. But the game is highly pragmatical. In the experimentation offered by digital art, there is nothing to win except experimentation for itself and, more exactly, the discovery of its pleasure. From the field of the game, digital art preserves only the personal, individual and collective absorption.

f) The aesthetics of digital art is an aesthetics of science What digital art says, then, is the renunciation of representation, but also, and at the same time, the inscription of the life of the spectator himself as a formal element of the manifestations of art. The work of art is not only an object in which only the external representations are caught, but a living process in the simulation of the true conditions of life. The dynamism of digital art is never a multiplicity of representations. By means of experimentation, digital art wants to reach something like a scientific approach to aesthetic problems. Digital art is the art of the technique. Not as design, as an art-serving technique, but an art of the means of technical progress of itself and for itself. Gilles Deleuze said elsewhere: ìThe scientist brings out of the chaos some scientific variables, the artist some artistic varietyî Digital art wants to conciliate both. It wants to be, at the same time, an art of technique and of knowledge. What its creator hopes to model is, paradoxically, what he has never seen. It is certainly why finding his balance is so difficult.

6. Memorizing

At this point begins the second socio-economic point which questions beginnings, which questions the place of art inside society, and, especially, addresses the aspect of its conservation. If aesthetic pleasure is realized through the mediation of an object, because this experience may be indefinitely renewed, the conservation of that object, for private use, as for collective appropriation, is absolutely necessary. What the museums say, forgetting the ongoing changes in the historical relations to what today is called an object of art, is very likely something like this: ìcome and confront the objects, in conditions we try to make as appropriate as possible, and live the aesthetic experiences which so many people before you have lived.î The experience can not be transmitted, but it can be reproduced. The mercantile investment in the work has no other justification than the uniqueness of the object and its irreplaceability and commercial value. The experience it allows for can not be had without it. So this object represents an economic interest because the experience of it can produce returns on investments. This is especially so when the relation to the original is the strongest. A good copy of an object can also provide an enlivening experience, as shown by the multiple reproductions of virtual places, such as the Lascaux cave, for instance. These principles justify the art business. And banks lock up works of art in their coffers. Digital art complicates these rules a little.

a) Fixed digital work is like any other work of art Firstly, digital work permits experimentation. Not experience. That makes a large difference. Essentially contextual, therefore made for installations and performances, this experimentation can be realized only in the context for which it has been created. What is important is the process, not the object which, for a while, gives substance to that process. Nothing remains of that. Surely, there is always the possibility of memorizing a part of the process, or to take a picture, or of recording it, but nothing could be more deceptive because when digital art is fixed, it becomes as any other object and is transferred to a completely different aesthetic universe. A videotape, or even less, a single frame, from the Messenger of Catherine Ikam and Jean-Baptiste BarriËre for instance, can never give the smallest idea of the total situation created by the interactions between the spectator, the falsely living face of the messenger, the changes of the music, and the movements of the spectators: all these things are what the spectator experiences. What remains is only what has been changed in the critical memory of the viewer.

b) Digital art has no value Moreover, in the infinity of original moments of production, when the numerical model may always create new ones, why remain on that track more than any another? During the exhibition Les immatÈriaux in 1985, my poetry generator Renga wrote more than thirty-six thousand poems. All of them where kept by the Georges Pompidou Centre, but what interest will there be in poems that have been kept when the program may restart and produce a new infinity of others? Why would the number ìthree-hundred-and-fiftyî be more interesting than the number ìforty-two thousandî? Why would two seconds of the Tunnel under the Atlantic of Maurice Benayoun, recorded on October the 12, 1996, be more interesting than two other seconds produced in 1999? Where is the real value of such traces? Where is the value in the digital art? Modern art, with its installations or Christo’s wrappings, for instance, has asked these questions but because, all things considered, it created static objects of which only fixed representations can be created, they were of relatively less importance. What could not be reproduced was nothing more than the actual context. A new wrapping can always be madeÖ Digital art adds another dimension to that problem: it is completely impossible to only exhibit a work of digital art, it is always necessary to become immersed in it, to navigate around in it, to interact with it, to experiment with its processes and inside the exact environments made for it.

c) Flow In front of us, the status of the work of art is changing. For many centuries -- and still for a large part of the earth’s populations -- the world was in what can be called the ìreligious modeî -- a medium of transcendence where the object has no other value than to make signs for and of an invisible beyond. After having adopted the ìaristocratic modeî in which the work reflected the hierarchic importance of the people who ordered it, and then the ìmiddle-class modeî where being is confused with having and value with assets. Today, the work of art aims to assume what can be called the ìfinancial modeî in which the work has no more value as an object; its value is only in the capturing of its unending movements.

d) Digital art plays with life and death The being of the work of art is no more in the object itself but in the possibilities created by the processes of these objects. Having has less importance than capturing. Today, to produce is no longer to reproduce but to re-produce: the work of digital art tries to provoke the experience of perpetual news events in which each spectator is the only one who can keep a record. In his Aesthetic Theory, speaking of the works of art, Adorno said, ìTheir proper life feeds itself with death.î A digital work of art always plays with its own life and its own death.


Adorno, Theodor: ThÈorie esthÈtique, Ed. Klincksieck, Paris, 1995. Deleuze, Gilles: DiffÈrence et rÈpÈtition, Ed. Minuit, Paris, 1968. Deleuze, Gilles: Guattari FÈlix, Mille plateaux, Ed. de Minuit, Paris, 1980. Deleuze, Gilles: Pourparlers, Ed. Minuit, Paris, 1996. Dewey, John: Art as experience, Carbondale, Southern Illinois University Press, 1987. LÈvy, Pierre: Cyberculture (Rapport au conseil de l’Europe), Ed. Odile Jacob, Paris, 1997. LÈvy Pierre: De la programmation comme un des beaux-arts, Ed. La DÈcouverte, Paris, 1992. Shusterman, Richard: ìL’art et la thÈorieî in L’art sans compas, Ed. du CERF, Paris 1992. Weissberg, Jean-Louis: PrÈsences ‡ distance, Document d’Habilitation ‡ diriger des recherches, UniversitÈ Paris 8, 1998.

© Jean-Pierre Balpe