Digital Art History Chapter 1 Chapter 1, cont. Chapter 2 Chapter 2, cont. Chapter 3 Chapter 3, cont. Chapter 4 Chapter 4, cont. Chapter 5 Chapter 6


Basic History of Digital Artforms and Cyber Culture
By Iona Miller, 4/04



Digital fine art

Gaming environments; animation

Software writing

Novel visualization environments

Desktop publishing

Collaborative work environments


Distance learning

Net art works

Interactive fiction

Product design

Digital video arts; film; visual effects

Hypertext; graphics

Active learning simulations


Psychophysical biofeedback


Medical applications

Browser art

Musical and spoken word media

Information arts

VR psychotherapeutics

Revolution in Resolution; Digital Artforms; Pomo Media Studies;
Hypermedia; “Know Brow” Technoshamanism;
Multimedia; Telematic Embrace; Becoming Virtual

“A theory of cultural change is impossible without knowledge of the changing sense ratios effected by various externalizations of our senses.” ~ Marshall McLuhan, Gutenberg Galaxy

“When art leaves the frame and when the written word leaves the page – not merely the physical frame and page, but the frames and pages of assigned categories – a basic description of reality itself occurs, the liberal realization of art….Each dedicated artist attempts the impossible. Success will write Apocalypse across the sky. The artist aims for a miracle, the painter who wills his picture to move off the canvas outside of the picture, and one rent in the fabric is all it takes for pandaemonium to sluice through.” ~ William Burroughs, Introduction to Apocalypse

“Works of art provide new experiential gestalts and, therefore, new coherences. From the experientialist point of view, art is, in general, a matter of imaginative rationality and a means of creating new realities. Aesthetic experience is thus not limited to the official art world. It can occur in any aspect of our everyday lives – whenever we take note of, or create for ourselves, new coherences that are not part of our conventionalized mode of perception or thought.” ~ Lakoff and Johnson, Metaphors We Live By

“It is debatable when exactly the history of digital art began. Artists have been experimenting with computers at least since the 1970's... As in the evolution of photography and video art, this new medium was often considered a threat to traditional art forms... Over the decades, art making use of digital technologies has taken many forms, and even today, the question of how exactly digital or new media art can be defined is still being debated.” ~ Christiane Paul, New Media Curator, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, FotoFest 2002 Catalogue Introduction

Revolution in Resolution

Media oracle, Marshall McLuhan became a pop culture figure in the 1960's with his seminal works, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (McGraw-Hill, 1964) and The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects (with designer Quentin Fiore, Random House, 1967). The information revolution had begun. We entered an era governed by information (IT), signs (semiotics), and cybernetic technology. Ownership of information is the real process of control (Miller, 2004).

Famous for coining the phrases "The medium is the message" and "the global village," McLuhan’s prescient insight also touched deeply on the nature of creative process and creative freedom in the electronic era. He was the prophet of cyber culture, and the digital lexicon.

He suggested artists are the cultural antidote to relentless technological future shock, which simultaneously dominates and emancipates us. Art is the institutionalization of out-of-the-box or nonlinear thinking, and lets us know what that is like by embodying the geist of the era. For example, artists inoculate us against futureshock by introducing technological innovations long before they mainstream.

Art jolts us out of our commercially programmed trances and mass-media social conformities, by exposing the ‘spectacle.’ The spectacle is the stage at which the commodity has succeeded in totally colonizing social life. Commodification is not only visible, we no longer see anything else; the world we see is the world of the commodity. The spectacle is a permanent opium war designed to force people to equate goods with commodities and to equate satisfaction with a survival that expands according to its own laws.

“The fetishism of the commodity — the domination of society by “intangible as well as tangible things” — attains its ultimate fulfillment in the spectacle, where the real world is replaced by a selection of images which are projected above it, yet which at the same time succeed in making themselves regarded as the epitome of reality.The world at once present and absent that the spectacle holds up to view is the world of the commodity dominating all living experience. The world of the commodity is thus shown for what it is, because its development is identical to people’s estrangement from each other and from everything they produce.The loss of quality that is so evident at every level of spectacular language, from the objects it glorifies to the behavior it regulates, stems from the basic nature of a production system that shuns reality. The commodity form reduces everything to quantitative equivalence. The quantitative is what it develops, and it can develop only within the quantitative.Despite the fact that this development excludes the qualitative, it is itself subject to qualitative change. The spectacle reflects the fact that this development has crossed the threshold of its own abundance. Although this qualitative change has as yet taken place only partially in a few local areas, it is already implicit at the universal level that was the commodity’s original standard — a standard that the commodity has lived up to by turning the whole planet into a single world market.” (Guy Debord)

The spectacle is the flip side of money. It, too, is an abstract general equivalent of all commodities. But whereas money has dominated society as the representation of universal equivalence — the exchangeability of different goods whose uses remain uncomparable — the spectacle is the modern complement of money: a representation of the commodity world as a whole which serves as a general equivalent for what the entire society can be and can do.

There is a qualitative difference between being a consumer of the mind-numbing spectacle of mass-media or a free-radical developing content as a digital artist, game designer, art lab or consortium using new media as tools. The software code penetrates cultural and social development. Digital art has made composing retinal lyrics possible. Digital animation brings them to life as a multimedia “Hallelujah Chorus”.

New media makes different use of established channels and creates extraordinary works that fall outside of any conventional aesthetic definition. It’s a huge, active field with no single aesthetic line. The burgeoning new art culture is independent of the gallery system and infused with the spirit of innovation. It “entertains fantasies, not audiences,” according to performance artist Genesis P-Orridge.

Digital Artforms:

Media products have a social dimension and varying degrees of immersion and connectivity with the physical environment. Their temporal structures are driven interactively. Each modality, some listed at the head of this chapter, has its own vernacular. In each case it is the medium that makes the difference in the quality and texture of the experience. As MM said, “All media are extensions of some human faculty – psychic or physical.”

The ‘user’ is shaped by the interface and becomes an iconic and metaphorical entity created for the benefit of the IT industry, with its social and cultural control models. New interpretative paths can be traced which connect findings from several disciplines, such as complex systems, architectural, video and sci-fi experiments, beginning with their original channels, assumptions, forms, and perspectives.

All media are complementary, forged in complex patterns of interconnection. Opposition between screen and page or canvas is false; both articulate the human drive to encompass the cosmic pattern. Proclaiming the superiority of one medium over another takes us nowhere, because both are human artifacts, extending different senses. E-media are brimming over, immediate -- glowing wild -- they are whirlpools within whirlwinds, a chaotic media maelstrom, which homogenizes to white noise.

As Burroughs suggested, “When art leaves the frame and when the written word leaves the page – not merely the physical frame and page, but the frames and pages of assigned categories – a basic description of reality itself occurs, the liberal realization of art…Each dedicated artist attempts the impossible. Success will write Apocalypse across the sky. The artist aims for a miracle, the painter who wills his picture to move off the canvas outside of the picture, and one rent in the fabric is all it takes for pandaemonium to sluice through.”

Changing media demands a change in the arts. When photography revolutionized the traditional arts, painters stopped depicting literal scenes and began revealing an inner creative process in expressionism. Art moved from outer matching to inner making, according to MM. Today’s techno art challenges us to reach even deeper within our imaginations for a new form of expression, a novel response.
Recalling Blake's bard in the Songs of Innocence, who sees the past, present and future in unison through the imagination, McLuhan projected this perceptive condition on participants in the global media theatre. John Cage pointed out that “theatre takes place all the time wherever one is. And art simply facilitates persuading one this is the case.”

E-media makes history now right in our living rooms, (emphasis on the word “living.”) But he delighted in pointing out that we face forward with our ‘eyes wide shut.’ Meanwhile, official culture still relentlessly pressures the new media to do the work of the old.

All works of art are ‘painted’ against this cultural canvas, the deep background of society. Culture is a set of learned ways of thinking and acting that characterizes a decision-making human group. The biggest decision culture makes is deciding what reality is – consensus. It determines our paradigms, worldview, values, and aesthetics.

Our cultural landscape is morphing and art is morphing with it, and in many cases leading the way with artists as pathfinders. Media is the environment or cultural ground of 21st century life. It is a ground that is at once personal, social, global, corporate, and political.

Pomo Media Studies

During the 1980s, Jean Baudrillard was dubbed the new McLuhan, the most advanced theorist of the media and society in the so-called postmodern era. Though he originally dissented, McLuhan's formula eventually became the guiding principle of his own thought. Pomo existence means individuals surmount repressive forms of identity and stasis to release libidinal flow, to become desirous nomads in a constant process of becoming and transformation.

The pomo guru’s theory of a postmodern society rests on a key assumption that the media, simulations, and what he calls "cyberblitz" constitute a new realm of experience and a new stage of history and type of society. Baudrillard revisioned radical social theory and politics considering complex developments in consumers, media, information, and technological society.

Modernity centered on the production of things --commodities and products -- while postmodernity is characterized by radical semiurgy, by a proliferation of signs (the domain of semiotics). Furthermore, following McLuhan, Baudrillard (along with Virilio, Deleuze and Guattari) interprets modernity as a process of explosion of commodification, mechanization, technology, and market relations.

Desire fills the gap between consciousness and being. This philosophy has penetrated literary arts, architecture, visual and design arts, photography, popular culture and music, popular culture and music, film, video and television. But the deconstructionist and minimalist position has arguably crested, and restless artists await the next wave of exploration. In fact, they are not waiting at all, but moving inexorably forward with their unnamed movement into the dynamic era.

Key Characteristics of Postmodern Visual Art:· Nonchalance in dealing with seemingly incompatible styles; aesthetic pluralism; coexistent styles; appropriation of images (endlessly plagiarizes and recycles).· Return to the common vernacular of the streets. ‘High’ and ‘low’ art mingle freely. Hybridization; confusion of boundaries.· Joy in the unconstrained use of color and shapes; a wealth of imagination and a feeling for decorative effects.· Disregard for orthodox aesthetic conformity and convention; lack of systematic approach; contradiction; discursivity, superfluous playfulness, transience.· Unrestrained ego or exhibitionistic narcissism; polymorphous eroticism, self-referential, accumulation.

Postmodern society is an implosion of all boundaries, regions, and distinctions between high and low culture, appearance and reality, pleasure and pain, and just about every other binary opposition maintained by traditional philosophy and social theory. Simulations and simulacra, media and information, science and new technologies, and implosion and hyperreality become the constituents of a new postmodern world. Content has dissolved into form.

Baudrillard's analyses point to a significant reversal of the relation between reality and representation. Previously, the media were believed to mirror, reflect, or represent reality. Now the media constitute a (hyper)reality, a new media reality -- "more real than real" -- where "the real" is subordinate to representation leading toward ultimate dissolving of the real. Modernism’s love of pure form (such as Rothko’s) has become transcendentally embodied in new media and its appropriations, cynical recycling, allegorical styles, and hyper-organic creations.

Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, Francis Bacon, David Hockney, Mary Kelly, Anselm Kiefer, Jasper Johns, Ron B. Kitaj, Sole Le Witt, Roy Lichtenstein, Nam June Paik, Christo, Rasheed Araeen, Carl Andre, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Schnabel, and David Salle have been associated with the postmodern aesthetic and ethos. But postmodernism is not a ‘school’ as much as a tendency in visual arts that is encouraged in training. Bored with minimalism and abstraction, it is radical and reactionary art produced after the philosophical “death” of modern art in the late 1960s.

“Postmodernism is impure. It knows about shortages. It knows about inflation and devaluation. It is aware of the increased cost of objects. And so it quotes, scavenges, ransacks, recycles the past. Its method is synthesis, rather than analysis. It is style-free and free-style. Playful and full of doubt, it denies nothing. Tolerant of ambiguity, contradiction, complexity, incoherence, it is eccentrically inclusive. It mimics life, accepts awkwardness and crudity, takes an amateur stance. Structured by time rather than form, concerned with context instead of style, it uses memory, research, confession, fiction – with irony, whimsy, and disbelief. Subjective and intimate, it blurs the boundaries between the world and self. It is about identity and behavior.” Levin, Beyond Modernism, Harper & Row: New York, 1988.

The language of art, as well as its vernacular, has changed. A cross-disciplinary field, media studies uses techniques from philosophy, psychology, art theory, sociology, information theory, and economics. The development of multimedia and performance art has been greatly influenced by media studies. Media serve as active "metaphors" that have powers to translate experience into new forms, new formats with enhanced flexibility.

Media function as transducers of psychic energy. Metaphors help us describe what experiences are like in emotionally charged concrete terms. They carry several meanings simultaneously, and “work” when they are appropriate to the context. Thought and image harmonize. They enrich meaning by implying added dimensions. They can be empathic, expressing feeling or judgments, intensifying our awareness, and strongly restating a theme while creating a memorable image.

There is no magic for discovering metaphors, no formula for creating them. They can arise from inside or outside. We use metaphors to describe things we can’t see or aren’t readily apparent, to describe vaguely sensed processes. We most easily comprehend those from our own experiential base, but metaphors also help us move from the known to the unknown.

Jose Ortega y Gasset said, “Metaphor is perhaps one of man’s most fruitful potentialities. Its efficacy verges on magic and it seems a tool for creation which God left inside His creatures when He made them.” Allegory is metaphor extended into a narrative structure. Allegorical works cross aesthetic boundaries, blurring them with enigma, impermanence, hybridization, and impulse. They may be critical, political, or discursive.

Metaphors help us extend, explore and expand our understanding. They are systematic correlates of our experience. Metaphor pervades everyday life as language, thought and action. Our conceptual system, how we think and act, is fundamentally metaphorical. It helps us define everyday realities. Metaphors condition how we perceive, think, and act. They unite physical and cultural coherence and create values.

Functioning as containers or nexus points, metaphors form coherent systems or networks with one another. They express imaginative rationality describing one kind of experience in terms of another, creating coherence by uniting dimensions of experience. New metaphors create new understandings, and therefore new realities – new gestalts of color, shape, texture, sound, etc.

Helping us discover what we know and how we know it, metaphors help familiarize the strange. They yoke us to reality by joining diverse experiences, the ephemeral and literal. Cultural metaphors are propagated by ritual; there is no culture without ritual. The postmodern ritual is booting up; its drumbeat is groove music. There is a new spatial grammar for the electronic age, and the digital artist is the pioneer or cybernaut exploring this new media frontier.

Chaos engineer Timothy Leary had his own positive take on the cyber-evolution. As usual, he was all for it:“We are mutating into another species – from Aquaria to the Terrarium, and now we’re moving into Cyberia. We are creatures crawling to the center of the cybernetic world. But cybernetics are the stuff of which the world is made. Matter is simply frozen information…The critics of the information age see everything as negative, as if the quantity of information can lead to a loss of meaning. They said the same thing about Gutenberg…Never before has the individual been so empowered. But in the information age you have to get the signals out. Popularization means making it available to the people. Today the role of the philosopher [and the artist, we might add] is to personalize, popularize, and humanize computer ideas so that people can feel comfortable with them…In every generation I’ve been part of a group of people who, like Prometheus, have wrestled with the power in order to hand it back to the individual.” (Chaos and Cyber Culture, 1994).

Understanding media is to understand the forms of media and to analyze the effects of media -- the content is mainly irrelevant. McLuhan meant the medium has an intrinsic nature and will do what it does regardless of the content conveyed. Certain perceptual systems will be enhanced and others suppressed.

New media reverse the relationship between "figure" (a new or conspicuous feature of the environment) and "ground" (the familiar environment). Digital technologies are the new medium; they are the new ground.

The approach in every study of any medium, once identified, is examining its shape or contours and discovering its underlying meaning. Successive media rise and fall. This holds true in the realm of digital arts – the electronic media. We must remain informed about the subtle nature of new media – the electronic palette -- from which our works emerge.

For the digital revolution in art, the computer is one such expressive medium that is transforming culture in a variety of ways, both educational and on the production end – in both ‘input’ and ‘output.’ It has become a virtual Temple of Living Light that is subject, tool, and medium with the aesthetics of the database, the algorithm and the code facilitating self-exploration and collaboration.

“Art that uses digital technologies as a medium can take so many different forms (ranging from interactive installations and networked installations to software art or purely Web-based art, among others). Even the term Internet art has become a broad umbrella for multiple forms of artistic expression that often overlap. There is art that has been created for and exists within the browser window; there are telepresence, telerobotics, and streaming media projects that establish telematic connections between remote places; there are performance and time-based projects that take place as actions within a specific time frame during which they can be experienced by Web visitors worldwide; there is hypertext that experiments with the possibilities of non-linear narrative; there are netactivism or “hacktivism” projects that use the network and its possibilities of instant distribution and cloning of information as a staging platform for interventions; there are alternative browsers, and there is software art that doesn’t make use of existing applications but is coded from scratch and distributed over the network. All of these forms are aesthetically very different and to distinguish certain “trends” is almost impossible. However, there are certain prominent themes and narratives within new media, among them data visualization and mapping, database aesthetics, gaming paradigms, agent technology etc. Currently, more and more works are being developed for nomadic devices, PDAs or cellphones, and I would expect that this art will experiment more with network structures that go beyond the static set-up of the CPU, monitor, and keyboard.” (Christiane Paul)

In McLuhan’s altered frame of reference, TV broke up the linear thinking of print culture, then “video killed the radio star,” moving us toward the electronic age wherein digital has killed analog culture. Digital artists have led this revolution in art, while most conventional artists have lagged behind this fundamental change in thinking. The subliminal, processed world of electronic technology will soon play out in unrestricted space.


Iona Miller