“It’s Pretty, but is it . . . Art?”
In Search of the Internet’s Aura

PDF version

 

At the turn of the 21st century, art remains to be dominated by film. However, new technologies such as the Internet are gaining more attention and public interest as an artistic outlet. Given these two mediums and their opposing characteristics, we are faced with an important question: Which of them is more artistically effective in communicating a message and why? By tracing the psychological, social, technological, physical, and metaphysical elements of both mediums we can arrive at a conclusion.

In his book, Understanding Media, Marshall McLuhen divides media into two categories: hot and cold. “Hot media are [...] low in participation, and cool media are high in participation or completion by the audience.(23)” Thus, film is considered a hot media because it involves little interaction with its audience. It essentially does all the work for the viewer: by creating the flicker effect of projecting 24 frames per second it pieces togther each frame and each sound which command our bodies’ attention involuntarily. As a medium it always has a finite beginning and end, along with everything in between, which the audience cannot manipulate. The audience is allowed to interpret a film anyway they want, but the film itself will never change. From its birth, film has changed the way people visually perceive the world and eventually other visual media such as television, video games, and, of course, the Internet.

However, the priciples of the Web are much different from film--it is what McLuhen would call a cool media. The user of a website is given the freedom to experience it however he/she desires at any given moment. In fact, the user must constantly voluntary interact with a website for it to serve its purpose. This means the user is in control of the effect a website has on him/her by being able to navigate within it freely. On a larger scale, these rules apply for the entire Internet. For example, when a browser application is opened, a homepage that can be designated by the user at any point in time automatically appears. In theory, this means that every time one opens the browser he/she is directing his/her surfing experience in a certain manner and confining oneself to a tunnel of thought right from the beginning, depending on the contents of that homepage. To understand this better, imagine replacing the first frame of every film that you ever see again with the first frame of your favorite movie that you have already seen multiple times. The effect of that single frame will have, at the very least, a minute influence on the way you perceive the rest of the new films. Similarly, that homepage has the power to influence the direction of the user’s mind for the remainder of his/her time online. Now consider this: if the browser would automatically choose the user’s homepage at random each time he/she opens the application. Each experience on the Internet would be drastically different because the Internet itself would have a hand in controlling the user, however that is not the nature of the web.

Now that we’ve established the fundamental characteristics of each media let us explore why film still holds truer than the Internet as an artistic communicator. In terms of aesthetics, film is more organic in the way it is created and presented. It allows the audience to perceive content in many different ways by employing certain visual conventions such as lighting, continuity, and depth of field. By doing so, it evokes emotions from the viewer. Whereas the Internet is not as dynamic--when you’re surfing, there is no way of drawing emotion from clicking on a mouse which activates a hyperlink or a sound or a quicktime movie. Conflicting interests between the creators of websites and the user nearly defeat the purpose of the Internet. In life, and as intended in the Internet, we naturally move from one place to another and arrive at thoughts in an associative non-linear fashion, but when at a website we must operate within a set of boundaries that someone else constructed. Therefore, as Lev Manovich states in his book, The Language of New Media, “We are asked to mistake the structure of somebody else’s mind for our own.(61)” This ultimately leads us to remain in a state of permanent confusion while surfing the web, although we may not even be aware of it. Considering this, how are we suppossed to get an artistic message from the Internet if we are consistently following these patterns? This is depreciating the potential value of the entire medium.

When we think of the Internet, we generally think of it as a means of communication between people via email, chatrooms, instant messaging, websites, etc. These ways with which we communicate are predominantly used for unartistic intentions whether it be commerce, advertising, other business-to-business exchanges, etc. Many people view the Internet as a job or burden because once you sign on, you cannot avoid the bombardment of garbage I previously mentioned. Because of the wide range of commercial content on the web, many of us underestimate its ability to exist as an artistic realm. According to McLuhen, “The effect of electric technology had at first been anxiety. Now it appears to create boredom. We have been through the three stages of alarm, resistance, and exhaustion that occur in every disease or stress of life, whether individual or collective.(27)” He wrote these words over fifty years ago, however this applies similarly to our Internet in 2002. We have abused and exhausted it to the point where we are looking for the next frontier such as virtual reality, which is a whole other can of worms.

With all this in mind, how do we perceive art to be represented as on the web? Static images of pictures of paintings or drawings that are digitally scanned into Photoshop and “optimized” for the web? Or, a song sample digitally converted to an aiff file that loops infinitely? Or, maybe even a film trailer that has been digitized and compressed into a neat little 320x240 window? Unfortunately, art is not that simple. In the words of McLuhen, “It is only too typical that the ‘content’ of any medium blinds us to the character of the medium.” Amongst all these types of reformatted media there are a number of artists/programmers who do take advantage of the computer’s inborn computational abilities by creating dynamic sites that require decision-making and other psychological interaction for the user to get any value out of them.

It is arguable that Flash and Shockwave animation in conjunction with programming is, in fact, the art of the Internet--or at least a type of such. For example, a website, created in Flash, entitled Walking Together What Remains (www.bornmagazine.org/projects/walking) describes itself as a found poem and consists of a series of frames with text displayed over images that progress automatically at a fixed pace. However, the designers also encourage the user to shuffle through each frame by his/her free will--leading to different interpretations and reactions to the artwork. This may seem to be a breakthrough experience, but keep in mind that it is no different from a typical menu-based site wherein the creator has established a fixed amount of possiblilities the user may encounter. It may look “cool,” but that does not mean it is, in a sense, art. When entering the dynamic stage, one may, in theory, never follow the same path twice. According to Manovich, this is where the true art of the Internet lies, “The content of an artwork [on the web] is the result of a collaboration between the artist/programmer and the computer program, or, if the work is interactive, between the artist, the computer program, and the user.(67)” The website, MONO*crafts (www.yugop.com), created by Yugo Nakamura explores this aspect of collaboration quite well. It provides various Flash movies that involve the user input in many different ways, always dynamically, with no pre-existing destination.

Regardless of whether the Internet contains art or can be used as an artistic medium, the most essential and complicated aspect of the relationship between a work of art and the spectator/user is the aura of the work of art. In his famous essay, Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Walter Benjamin “define[s] the aura of [a natural object] as the unique phenomenon of a distance, however close it may be.(section three)” By this he means there is a mysterious and universal gap between a person and an object’s (in this case, a work of art’s) metaphysical and social significance to that person. For instance, since we have established that film is art, if one were to erase the gap between him and the film by holding the very reels of it in his arms he is not going to experience the aura of that film; direct physical contact has nothing to do with the aura simply because it is intangible. In order for him to experience the aura of the film, it must transcend the boundaries within which it has been set. We can do this by projecting light through the film and onto a screen and this, in turn, allows the person access to its aura by perceiving it through his senses of sight and hearing. So, by a process of mechanically reproducing the object we are able to bring it closer to us, thereby experiencing its aura.

Considering the virtual existence of the Internet, the crisis we face now is whether or not it possesses an aura. Can something that exists as binary code (1s and 0s) have such a thing? Of course! However, when viewing a website such as MONO*crafts we are not getting the aura of that website, but of the many interfaces that surround it (ie. the browser, the OS, and the computer it requires to function).This puts a stiffling amount of distance between the user and the website. As a result he/she is several times removed from what is meant to be experienced the closest, thus diminishing the aura of the web page significantly.

Like film, we cannot fully experience the Internet’s aura until it is brought into our realm of perception by means of another operation. A case of the web transcending it’s origin to become closer to the user is exemplified by HEAVY.com (www.heavy.com). It exists as a pop-up window that automatically conforms to the size of the desktop, blocking out all other windows that may be open. This is also close to the concept of how film is displayed in a cinema, “A screen’s image strives for complete illusion and visual plenitude, while the viewer is asked to suspend disbelief and to identify with the image. Although the screen in reality is only a window of limited dimensions positioned inside the physical space of the viewer, the viewer is expected to concentrate completely on what she sees in this window, focusing her attention on the representation and disregarding the physical space outside.(Manovich, 96)” With respect to Heavy.com, the way they present their site is very effective with respect to eliminating the layers of interface or separation between itself and the user. By doing so, it demands the user’s undivided attention and reduces distraction, but despite this cannot break out of the OS or computer interfaces.

Furthermore, because we are not digital entities we are further removed from the Internet’s binary form, therefore its aura. One way to possibly experience the aura of a digital entity is to become a physical piece of that entity’s reality. A video game released in 1993 for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System and Sega Genesis consoles, titled Shadowrun (Data East/Beam Software), indulged in the theory of nanotechnology and a ‘matrix’ society. Wherein the characters had digital implants and could “jack” into a virtual realm (ie. the matrix) that controls the real world. While jacked into this matrix, the character becomes a physical part of the realm, in other words, a 1, a 0, or a series of 1s and 0s. If we could be represented as such like the Shadowrun characters we would be able to achieve a different type of contact with the aura and/or, quite possibly, become the aura.

The size of the gap between human perception and the aura of a medium determines the magnitude of impact that the medium has upon us. If we built a technology in which we could manifest ourselves as binary code and travel among the networks of the web, it is interesting to think what may be possible next. By digging deeper, we can find that all art has an aura and have the potential to be equally significant. Until we are able to access the Internet’s true aura and not just the art, film will be the more effective artistic communicator of the two. And when surfing the Internet as humans and we think we’ve come upon a website that has all the components of “cool” we must think of Orson Welles, and ask ourselves, “It’s pretty, but is it . . . art?”

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reprodution” in Illuminations. 5th edition. Ed. Hannah Arendt. Schocken Books, NY. 1978. pp. 217-251.

Manovich, Lev. The Language of New Media. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001.

McLuhen, Marshall. Understanding Media:The Extensions of Man. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1994

F For Fake. Dir. Orson Welles. Videocassette. Janus Films/Home Vision, 1975.


Walking Together What Remains,Home page. Last updated:2000. Chris Green and Erik Natzke. When visited:30 Nov. 2002 <http://www.bornmagazine.org/projects/walking/>

Heavy.com. Home page. Last updated: Dec. 2002. When visited: 30 Nov.2002 <http://www.heavy.com/>

MONO*crafts 3.0. surface.yugop.com. Last updated:10 Nov. 2002. Yugo Nakamura. When visited:3 Dec. 2002 <http://www.yugop.com/>