Tom Sherman Essay (full text)

Flying in the Face of Abundance and Redundance
Tom Sherman, 2005

We are entering a period of time when people will have access to unprecedented quantities of data and prepackaged information. The Net is just the beginning. Every time we turn around we are offered a new information appliance connected to a new source of data. Screens and speakers and transceivers link us with networks and databases and everything can be downloaded and saved in memory to be manipulated and reformed at our leisure. Skyscraper-scale memory is available in minute packages. Data can be stored, shuffled and reformulated in any number of attempts to create information. As the great generalist Gregory Bateson said, information is any difference that makes a difference. Everyone has a responsibility to find the differences they need to distinguish themselves in an era when similarities are the rule. Relative chaos looks the same, whatever your point of view.
The artist has a role to play in our societies and that role is to remind people of the value of difference. Somehow the artist must highlight difference at a time when people crave coherency and uniformity. The broadest public seeks conformity and order, fields of data that march in-formation. You can see this in the 200-channel television universe where there is so much redundancy that basically there is nothing to watch. News and current affairs, movies, music videos, sports, game shows, celebrity exposé’s, animals-in-action and reality, reality, reality ad-nausea, are strung together like the teeth on a comb. Such vertical programming makes for a bumpy, difficult terrain. There are lots of ‘choices,’ but little difference. What’s more alarming is we’ve gotten to the point where ‘reality’ is a format.
If television as an experience is bumpy but as predictable as a dirt road, radio has become flat and as slick as a newly frozen pond. Scan any AM or FM dial and the talk and canned music are smooth and seamless and flat in the emptiest way. Flatness and horizontality can denote a decentralized diversity and healthy irregularity, but with radio today we’re talking about a featureless, horizon-line flatness. Most people choose radio for ambient sonic landscaping, background sound, when they are commuting by automobile or peeling potatoes in the kitchen sink. Now satellite radio is poised to bring cable television-like ‘diversity’ to radio listeners everywhere. Soon radio will feature news and current affairs, the soundtracks of movies and music videos, sports, game shows, celebrity exposé’s, growling animals-in-action and reality, reality, reality (code for more phone-in shows).
The artist has to watch and listen to this crap, just like everyone else. With movies, audiences sit in the dark as their collective fears and aspirations are tweaked at maximum levels of sensory input. Computer artists are airbrushing the action film headfirst into an exploding vista of violent kitsch. Giant screens and surround-sound systems deliver motion picture entertainment, the collision of canned drama and video game violence. They say that computer games are actually eclipsing movies in terms of market share. Interactivity locks the players in an exciting, addictive state of total immersion. In reality, the violence is better when you are in control and can apply it in excess. The sex is not as good as it is in the movies, yet, but with video games the violence is definitely better.
If artists are involved in pushing different kinds of experiences, then artists must be interested in innovation, in doing things differently. Everyone thinks they are creative these days. But let’s face it, there are very different kinds of artists and several shades or degrees of art and innovation. There are artists, and then there are artists. Creating the appearance of art is easier than making art. The public will embrace art that looks and feels like art, because they know that culture needs to be pushed and refreshed by art. Things that appear to be art are often stimulating and amusing. This is why art is featured in the entertainment section of the newspaper.
At this time, in the first decade of the 21st century, making any difference that truly makes a difference is extremely difficult. Producing information and making art are roughly equivalent acts in an information age, a time governed by an information economy and by social-psychological states defined by statistics, demographics and audience share. In other words, a lot of people are trying to make a difference these days, but the stage is crowded and it’s hard to get much attention. The multinational corporations that control the entertainment industry and simultaneously write and deliver the news persist in promoting their own products and politics through a deluge of empty messages. Consumption is guaranteed through force-feeding and appetites are refreshed by the constant evolution and introduction of networked technological devices (so-called information appliances). The public loves the new gear and although bloated and constipated by overdoses of vacuous, industrial culture pumped into them at obscene volume and pressure, they still somehow heroically try to buy more, hoping someday to be satisfied for more than ten minutes at a time. Just try to push challenging art in this environment.
To make things more problematic, increasingly difficult-to-please audiences share control of the creation of information, in the act of reception. Data can be configured in a wide range of form and content, but ultimately only differences embraced by audiences will determine the value of any exchange of data (and in this process, the creation of information). This can be the creation of art. The more unlikely the connection between people exchanging differences, the greater the information conveyed. In all acts of communication where information is created, the receiver has an equally important role as the producer and transmitter of the data. Artists have known for a long time that audiences determine the meaning of their work. Unfortunately, audiences today are largely busy, distracted, and tired.
Artists are adept at managing and organizing data. Artists still make statements, where they issue declarations of difference, but their main day-to-day routines are focused on data processing. At this time artists are not looking very sexy, as they are stooped over laptops, locked in primary, somewhat inanimate relationships with their machines. Berets and paint-splattered pants have been replaced with the nerdy look. Eccentricity is now defined by degrees of nerd chic, a lifestyle that says computers and phones and mp3 players are our best friends. The skin is a nocturnal shade of pale. Wires are rare, usually adorning the neck, as wirelessness is the ideal. Eye contact between individuals is fleeting as so much time is spent checking tiny liquid-crystal screens for messages or looking away from camera-phones, striking cool poses for surveillance-like portraits. Private conversations are highly coded for transmission in public. Phrases are standard and contact-is-contact no matter how empty, unnecessary or awkward. Messages are counted, filed, saved, responded to, and often ignored. Text and voice are expanded through digital pix and video clips. Patterns of data transmission and consumption hold more interest than individual images and sounds.
Artists and their potential audiences share a media environment that’s crowded, noisy and challenging. In order to negotiate an environment characterized by abundance and redundance we need hardware and software extraordinaire to cut through the jumble. We need memory, organizers, filters, mixers, highlighters and zappers. These devices must be integrated and powerful, yet miniature and portable, and these tools must interface with our eyes, ears, and fingers and maybe most importantly interface through speech. As a species we love to talk. Our voices respond quickly and issue commands efficiently and give us a sense of presence immediately.
We welcome an avalanche of mediated reality through the ports of our personal telecommunications gear. Media culture is thus thrust relentlessly upon us as an add-on to our animal nature. We have evolved into creatures still needing one foot in the physical world while the other explores the virtual space beyond our screens, speakers and networked devices. At this point there is no respite from augmentation. Instruments are part of our lives and the instrumentality of our personalities goes a long way toward defining our differences. As wired, bodiless intelligences we have a far more impressive palette of colours and amplitudes. Our augmented dynamic range is downright scary. There are advantages to being connected through broadband digital telecom.
Artists and regular folks are looking more and more like each other these days. With technology-based art there was once a time when access to special tools and processes and knowledge was enough to distinguish artists from everyone else. For instance, electroacoustic musicians and composers once used big, mainframe computers and elaborate configurations of loud speakers to produce their art. Electronic music was easily recognizable as something different than the symphony or string quartet or pop music vocals. It was the music of the future. It was all about machines and the space only they could render. In parallel developments in the visual domain experimental filmmakers worked with super-8 and 16mm film to make art with motion picture technology that clearly distinguished itself from commercial cinema and far exceeded the potential of painting and photography in scale and movement and duration. Such serious music and experimental film could be integrated and presented together to immerse and assault people who were looking for something different. In the 1950s, there was a clear notion of a technological avant-garde working to produce a stimulating array of sensations designed to challenge and alter the perceptual reality of small but dedicated audiences. Modern artists and their audiences knew their work was nothing like popular culture. This was the beginning of an elite unpopular culture, an underground.
In the mid-20th century, tech-based unpopular culture was exotic because computers and film technology were generally inaccessible to the broadest number of artists. The commitment of time and resources necessary to work with digital and photochemical media limited the accessibility and popularity of these forms. Computer music and experimental film were embraced by technological and artistic specialists, and their audiences had to work very hard to understand what they were experiencing. Fifty years ago there wasn’t that much art being authored with contemporary, cutting edge technology.
Today we inhabit a far more complex techno-cultural environment. The experimental film with computer music is just one of many options for today’s contemporary artist, just another formal genre like colour painting or photolithography. Furthermore the evolution of digital technology makes it possible for the broadest number of people to produce their own photography, music and moving pictures. The arsenal of digital media tools in the average household in the developed world is astounding. Most people have their own computers and also pack digital still cameras, video camcorders and digital music devices. Wireless phones play music and take pictures and stream video and television, and send and receive text messages in addition to their remarkable conveyance of voice. People are connected to networks where they can access data-streams in parallel to the pre-packaged information they can get via radio, television and various print sources. They can download software and a ton of raw material for mixing and constructing their own cultural productions. These productions can be described as vernacular, unpopular culture.
Today’s unpopular culture is different from the unpopular underground culture of the mid-20th century, when underground or avant-garde was the place to be. Unpopular culture today is not just unpopular because it flies in the face and is a rejection of the values of pop culture. Unpopular culture today includes tens of thousands of producers who remain unknown and unrecognized despite trying to crack the mainstream. Contemporary unpopular culture and art is made by all different kinds of people who have the production tools they need, but simply don’t have the distribution channels or exhibition venues to reach significant audiences in terms of numbers.
Artists have always had the primary option of being unpopular as they are largely self-serving and often completely uninterested in catering to public taste. Artists offer their audiences what they themselves find interesting and valid. In contrast, the entertainment industry cultivates audiences and studies them to find out what their audiences will embrace, and then they package it and sell it to them. Education has to compete with entertainment, so educators give their captive audiences, their students, the kind of programming they think they’ll absorb. Educators have to learn how to attract and hold the attention of their student-audiences while they give the students what they need, not likely what they desire.
Unpopular culture sounds like a failure, but misery loves company and it is easier than ever to be unpopular today. The corporate power that drives today’s hit-based culture concentrates its efforts on delivering the movies, television shows, music, sporting events, books, magazines and the news that ‘everybody’ desires. 21st century celebrity culture is shaped by statistics and demographics and is continuously updated and refined through feedback. The audiences for popular culture commit their divided but still measurable attention through networks to larger-than-life spectacles. The entertainment machine is designed to deliver mega-stars to a global audience connected via satellites and fiber optics and through an increasingly wireless array of data-processing devices. For those in the spotlight, there is nowhere to hide. For everyone else, well, we’re just unpopular and invisible. Reality programming has been introduced to give us hope. It serves as a conveyor belt for delivering ordinary people to the spotlight for their 15 minutes of fame, just as Andy Warhol had predicted. But there is nothing natural about reality anymore. Philosophers have always known that reality was a construction of the mind. Now the rest of us are learning this the hard way.
It is nice to be a player, to be able to produce and exchange messages in a range of contemporary media, but being in the unpopular cultural sector fosters considerable self-doubt and anxiety. In an information economy where value is measured in degrees of attention, it can be frustrating when audiences are small and fleeting. Artists find themselves competing with highly skilled professional amateurs: independent producers of images, movies, animations, music and news. Budgets may be modest or non-existent, but today’s standards of production are at a very high level. Artists are confined to an amateur status, as their resources will seldom permit a lifestyle free of a time-consuming day-job. The digital revolution has certainly leveled the playing field.
The institutions that used to support and showcase traditional alternatives to popular culture, the art galleries, museums and exhibition centres, have put all their eggs back in the basket of physical objects. If an institution has invested a fortune in bricks-and-mortar architecture, what sense does it make to get wired and go virtual?
Artists have responded predictably by firming up their virtual offerings and returning to the physical domain; film and video is installed as image-based sculpture, and computers are used to control material objects in demonstrations of physical computing. The underlying structure is conceptual, but ideas are rendered in wood, plastic, metal and paint or in bacteria, food, earth and water.
Performance is another possibility in the unpopular sector. What could be more honest than to simply make appearances doing interesting things as a strategy for attracting and holding attention? Performance is not a very good option for the psychologically fragile individual, as personal appearances are necessary and performers are subjected to critiques of their body types, hair, faces, teeth, sexuality, clothing, posture—you name it. Costumes are good for distracting audiences from the body. But no matter how much cover or camouflage is employed, ageism, sexism, racism and lookism are sure to rear their ugly heads.
Audiences starting out in pop culture and migrating into unpopular culture are particularly brutal in their rejection of the ordinary. None of us want to feel ordinary. So we are driven to perform amazing feats. Artists are then rejected for standing on their heads and trying too hard to be different. Crazy work is deemed artificial and contrived. Novelty is sought until it is found and then it wears thin very quickly. Artists are damned if they do and ignored if they don’t.
Making any difference that makes a difference is hard in this time of ‘information’ abundance and redundance. Data is organized with the goal of making a significant difference. Audiences co-create information at the point of reception. Radical shifts in meaning are possible only within small numbers of individuals, in one-to-one exchanges or communication between small, willing groups. Producing information and making art is not a mass media enterprise.
From the perspective of audiences, raw and cooked data swirls around them and blows through them in blizzards of signals, messages and noise. Layer after layer of popular and unpopular culture build and disintegrate as audiences’ collective attention-spans flicker in and out of consciousness. Many artists aim to please, some to displease, but all attempt to create information-yielding differences. When one is in the business of creating and sending out attention-seeking messages into an unpopular and hard-to-read sector, any feedback is much appreciated. The first question is always the same. Is anyone out there?

——

Tom Sherman <twsherma@syr.edu> is an artist and writer and professor in the Department of Transmedia at Syracuse University in New York. His latest book is Before and After the I-Bomb: An Artist in the Information Environment, Banff Centre Press, 2002. Sherman’s writing and voice work is currently featured on a weekly radio series, Nerve Theory’s H5N1: there is no privacy at the speed of light, broadcast on the Austrian national broadcasting system. Nerve Theory is the collaborative identity of Tom Sherman and Bernhard Loibner, a Viennese media artist. Listen on-line: for mp3 and podcast access check out: http://www.kunstradio.at/2006A/H5N1en.html

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