The Builders of the Future: Technology, Algorithms,
Immaterial/Re-material: A Brief History of Computing Art
UCCA Center for Contemporary Art, Beijing
Translated by Duncan Hewitt
There’s no denying that humanity is facing an evermore algorithmic world.
Thirty-six years ago the French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard put forward the philosophical concept ‘immaterial/non-material’, and conceptualised humanity’s future world in the form of an exhibition at the Centre Pompidou. Lyotard sought to convey to the audience the brand new sensory and perceptual experience that the information revolution was bringing to humanity, based on the newly emerging telecommunications and computer technology. In the past, the human body was the carrier of information – people stored information through experience, memory, work and creation. But with the dawning of the information revolution, humans were no longer the sole vectors of information – computers were also able to store it and retrieve it. Computers and electronic science had disrupted humankind’s identity, and Les Immatériaux, the exhibition Lyotard created, confirmed this loss of humanity’s unique status.
In terms of his criteria for selecting works for the exhibition, Lyotard wished to display things that would provoke a sense of uncertainty: uncertainty about the ’ultimate aim’ of these developments, and humanity’s uncertainty about its own identity amid this immateriality. At the time, these technological artworks were both avant-garde and challenging, forcing us to reconsider our relationship with ourselves, with other people and with the universe.
On the basis of the concept of ‘immateriality’, the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art ( UCCA ) proposed the idea of ‘re-materialisation’ in its group exhibition Immaterial/Re-material: A Brief History of Computing Art. ‘Re-materialisation’ is a re-examination of the concept of ‘immateriality’. In computing art, programs and telecommunications signals are intrinsically difficult to capture, since they exist in an ‘immaterial’ form. ‘Re-materialisation’ refers to artists using computers to extend the retina, and simulating programs, algorithms and data – which cannot be seen – in a materialised, visible, artistic form that we can take in and appreciate. ‘Information cannot be separated from the infrastructure that supports it’: when non-material artworks are introduced into physical space, one has to consider their material vectors, including films, projection, artificial neural networks ( ANN ), mechanical arms, robots and iris recognition. In terms of the creative process of making computing art, the dialectical relationship between the immateriality of computer algorithms and the material nature of the works they produce means that the uncertainty regarding how to exhibit them also poses a challenge for the curator.
Turning to the ontological theory of materiality, in the twentieth century artists of different schools carried out related artistic experiments, constantly expanding the definition of art. If we say that materiality is creation, is the beginning of art, then found object art is based on not damaging the object’s original material nature: it no longer uses the techniques of painting to maintain the separation between art and reality, but, instead, by means of changing the object’s setting, actually constructs a type of visual equivalent – the artist seeks to abandon shallow beauty, to return to the matter itself and explore its materiality, as with Andy Warhol’s Brillo Box.
It could be said that a certain materiality in art makes artworks themselves more open and sincere. But the rise of Conceptual art and Minimalism emphasised that art bears the conceptual consciousness of its creator – in other words, the artist’s aim in creating a work is to transmit their particular intellectual concept, and only then do they choose the appropriate physical materials or non-material form. This is art dispensing with the material – indeed, this eventually was to evolve into the ‘theory of the end of art’.
But there is a difference between the immateriality of computing art and the ‘dematerialisation’ of Conceptual art: the former is the product of a utopian development towards the future, passed on via new technology. It’s undeniable that computing art possesses greater visual power and interactivity. As a new kind of viewing experience, it is ‘immersive’, ‘interactive’ and ‘easy to photograph’, with a greater tendency to ‘become fashionable’ and ‘gain mass popularity’. Places to ‘clock in’ and take photos, along with interactive experience spaces, are the most fashionable form of presentation in exhibitions these days – computing art, which is not restricted to form and matter, is the medium for ‘creating more academic viral exhibitions’, and has thus broadened ordinary people’s awareness of art.
As the curator Jérôme Neutres puts it in the exhibition catalogue: ‘The exhibition demonstrates that computing technology is a true medium of art, one that generates an infinite number of visual possibilities, and not just an experimental school or short-lived art movement.’ Computing art seeks to avoid defining things by putting them in frames, and has discovered a more flexible and non-material system for organising time and space in an exhibition. For example, one type of computer art, ‘glitch art’, is a retro-style automatic or man-made malfunction or error, which, in today’s cultural environment of big data, artificial intelligence and internet ecosystems, may appeal to viewers for its novelty value.
This exhibition contains more than seventy works by artists ranging from the pioneers of computing art in the 1960s to today’s emerging artists, and surveys the origins of ‘computing art’, its current development and its future prospects. The artists include innovators such as Vera Molnar, Manfred Mohr and Edmond Couchot, and there is also no shortage of new media artists born in the 1990s – it’s as though products from a science and technology fair have been transposed into an art institution because of their aesthetic form.
The avant-garde Japanese visual artist Ryoji Ikeda’s data.tron [ WUXGA version ] resembles an apparition ritual, entrancing the audience: this is the result of his sensitivity towards the visual texture of programming language. As a practitioner of digital art, Ikeda finds his material in the most primitive element – pure data; he converts this into sound waves and video images, displaying matter, time and space before the audience’s eyes. Ikeda uses ultrasonics, frequency science and the fundamental characteristics of sound itself, challenging the limits of humanity’s cognition with mathematical logic.
Quayola’s Jardins d’Été, which also appears in the exhibition, is an ongoing project, in which the artist repositions the relationship between the Impressionists and natural landscapes, employing computer-science programs and data algorithms to break through the traditional structure of landscape painting. This invests the colours with new significance, turning ‘landscape’ into a system of symbols, and completely drawing the viewer into the imaginary space he has created.
In addition, some artists also exploit the programs’ generative capacity – the fact that computer programs can go beyond the limits of duration and space, leading to the creation of artworks through these programs’ ceaseless operation and constant iteration. The result is a capacity for self-sustaining creation. It also means that the entire process of creating these artworks is on display in the exhibition.
The final section of the exhibition is named ‘Illusions and Disillusions of the Post-Digital Era’. Cyberpunk reflects a future society after science and technology have evolved to a high level – one that no longer relies on intuition and instinct, but rather on the mass production of genome engineering. In the post-digital media era, science and technology have furnished art with new possibilities, but their intrusion into the art sphere has also brought with it a sense of anxiety.
In The Language of New Media, the Russian media theorist Lev Manovich says: ‘As is the case with all cultural representatons, new media representations are also inevitably biased. They represent/construct some features of physical reality at the expense of others, one worldview among many, one possible system of categories among numerous others.’¹ We have reason to suspect that computer media may become a new form of cultural hegemony. As artificial intelligence penetrates into everyday life, human’s capacity for memory is showing signs of declining, and even becoming increasingly vague. As key players, how should humans respond to the impact of digitalisation on humanity itself, and how should we order the relationship between the body and information? In the future, will humanity go beyond matter, or depend on it even more? Will AI ultimately be able to evolve its own self-awareness?
In response to humanity’s symbiotic relationship with technology and AI, art is exploring the eternal debate about the relationship between man and machine, and is also engaging in humane reflection on the changes brought by technology, and redefining material and immaterial… We feel a mixture of sadness and joy at such symptoms.
1. Lev Manovich, The Language of New Media ( Cambridge MA: The MIT Press ), 2001, pp. 15 –16.
三十五年前，法国哲学家利奥塔( Jean-Francois Lyotard )提出“非物质”( immaterial/nonmaterials ）这一哲学概念，在蓬皮杜艺术中心以展览的形式构想了人类的未来世界。利奥塔试图向观众传达信息革命给人类所带来的全新的感官体验，这种感觉经验基于新兴的远程通信技术和计算机技术。以前人的身体是信息的载体，人通过经验、记忆、工作以及创造来存储信息。随着信息革命的到来，人不再是信息的唯一载体，计算机同样能够贮存和调取信息。电脑和电子科学干扰了人的身份，而利奥塔策划的“非物质”展览证实着人类单一身份的丧失。对于展品的选择标准，利奥塔想要展出那些能引发不确定感的事物：对于那些发展的“最终目的”的不确定，以及人类个体在这样的非物质状态下身份的不确定。那些科技艺术作品在当时前卫又充满挑战性，迫使我们去重新思考人类与自身、与他人、与宇宙的关系。
UCCA 艺术中心群展“非物质/再物质：计算机艺术简史” 在“非物质”（ Immaterial ）的基础提出了“再物质” （ Re-material ）， “再物质”是对“非物质”这一概念的重新审视。在计算机艺术中，程序、电讯号本身是难以捕捉的，是以“非物质”的形态存在。而“再物质”是艺术家通过计算机延展视网膜，把不可见的程序、算法、数字模拟以一种物质化的、可见的、艺术的形式被我们接受和欣赏。“信息不能脱离支撑物”，当非物质性的作品放入实体空间，需要考虑其物质载体，如电影、投影、神经网络（artificial neural network，ANN ）、机器臂、机器人、眼球识别……围绕着计算机算法的非物质性与其生成作品具有的物质性这一辩证关系，在计算机艺术的创作过程中，展陈方式的不确定性也为策展人带来挑战。
提起艺术的物质性（ Materiality ）这一本体论，20世纪不同流派的艺术家们都做过相应的艺术实验，不断延展着艺术的定义。如果说物质性是创造，是艺术的开始，那么现成品艺术就是在不破环实物本身的物质特性之上，不再通过绘画技法来保持艺术与现实的疏离，而是通过改变作品的场景，真正建立出一种视觉对等物，艺术家试图摒弃虚华、回归物质本身，探讨其物质性，如安迪·沃霍尔的《布里洛盒子》。可以说，艺术中的某种物质性，让艺术作品本身更加开放和坦诚。而概念艺术、极简主义的兴起，则是强调艺术承载着创作者的观念意识，即艺术家的创作目的是为了传达其特定的思想观念，再选择合适的物质材料或非物质形式，是艺术的去物质，以至于后来演变成“艺术终结论”。 但计算机艺术的非物质性，与概念艺术的“去物质化”有所区别，它是在新技术传承下朝着未来乌托邦式的发展的产物。无可否认计算机艺术更具视觉冲击力和互动性，作为一种新的观赏经验，它是“沉浸式的”“交互的”“易于拍照的”，更趋向于“流行化”“大众化”。 拍照打卡点、互动式的体验空间是当下展览最流行的展现形式，而不拘泥于形式和物质的计算机艺术是“让网红展学术起来”的承担者，拓宽了大众对艺术的认知，如策展人黑阳（ Jerome Neutres ）在展览图录中所说：“展览试图证明计算机技术并非一种实验性的流派或一场短暂出现的艺术运动，而是作为一种真正的艺术媒介，开启了无数的视觉可能性。”计算机艺术想要回避这种对事物的方框式的界定，为展览时空的组织找到一套更为灵活和非物质的系统。例如，计算机艺术的一种—故障艺术（ glitch ），就是一种复古主义的自动或人为的失灵和错误， 在如今大数据、人工智能、网络生态的文化环境中让观者产生猎奇心理。
这次展览涵盖20世纪60年代计算机艺术先驱到当下新兴艺术家创作的70多件作品，回顾了“计算机艺术”的源起、当下发展，以及对未来的展望。其中既包括薇拉·莫尔（ Vera Molnar ）、曼弗雷德·莫尔、艾德蒙·库绍等计算机艺术先驱，也不乏一些九零后的新媒体艺术家，就像是科技博览会中的某些产品作为审美形态被挪移到艺术体制中来。前卫日本视觉艺术家池田亮司创作的《数据波场》data.tron( WUXGA version ) 就像一场灵媒仪式，让观众痴迷其中，这源自他对编程语言的视觉质感的敏感度。作为一位数字艺术实践者，池田亮司从最原始的元素——纯粹的数据中取材，并将它们转换成声波和影像，将物质、时间与空间呈现在观众面前，利用超声波学、频率学和声音本身的基本特性，以数理逻辑挑战着人类认知的极限。夸尤拉《夏日花园》也出现这次群展中，这是他正在持续创作的项目。在这个项目中，夸尤拉直接挪用印象派与自然景观之间的关系，利用电脑科技程序和数据算法打破风景画的传统构图，并赋予颜料新的意义，将“景观”转变为符号系统，让观赏者完全投入到他创作的想象空间中。此外，还有一些艺术家利用程序的生成性，即程序可以超越时长和空间限制，使艺术作品在计算机程序的永不停歇和不断迭代中被创造，从而产生了自我持续创作的能力。同时，制作艺术的全过程也被展示在展览中。
展览终章是“后数字时代的幻觉与幻灭”。 赛博朋克反映了科技高度发展后的未来社会，不再依赖直觉和本能，而是基因工程的大批量生产。在后数字媒体时代，科技为艺术带来了新的可能性的同时，也带来了入侵艺术之后伴随而来的焦虑。 俄国媒体理论学者 Lev Manovich 在《新媒体的语言》中表示：“正如所有的文化呈现一样，新媒体呈现也不可避免带有偏见。它们呈现或建构物质现实中的某些特征，以牺牲另一些特征为代价，它们凸显各种世界观中的某一种，在大量分类系统中选取一种可能。”1我们有理由怀疑，计算机媒介可能是新的文化霸权的方式。随着人工智能在日常生活中的渗透，人的记忆能力趋向退化甚至越来越模糊，人作为主体，该如何应对数字化对人类自身的影响，该如何处理身体和信息之间的关系？人类在未来会超越物质还是更依赖物质？AI 最终能否产生自我意识？艺术回应着人类与技术、与 AI 的共生关系，探索着关于人机关系的永恒探讨，也对技术带来的变化进化了和性的反思，并重新定义物质与非物质，我们为这样的症候悲喜交加。 “艺术越来越科学化，科学越来越艺术化，两者在山麓分手，有朝一日，将在山顶重逢。”